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Like most worthwhile endeavors, many mistakes are made before a successful new product can come to market. But, sometimes, those mistakes end up with something even better: The accidental discovery. Here are some of the most famous, profitable – and useful – accidental discoveries of all time.
In 1928, British scientist Alexander Fleming was conducting experiments, looking for a flu vaccine. Suddenly called away from his lab for several days, he returned to find one of the growth cultures “ruined’ by a mysterious mold which repelled the bacteria. He had accidentally discovered Penicillin. Millions would soon be cured of the flu. And the Clap…
In 1907, Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland was trying to find a chemical alternative to expensive shellac compounds, produced by costly breeding of Asian Beetles and yielding low results. Mixing several chemical compounds, he noticed that one mixture hardened into a malleable product we call plastic today. Rather immodestly, Baekeland called his discovery Bakelite and he became a millionaire many times over in the next decade, while he held the patent to the formula.
Although we’ll never know who the 9th century Chinese alchemists were who first mixed precise amounts of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal, the results have changed forever the world after those simple ingredients combined to form gunpowder, which is, essentially, comprised of the same mixture to this day.
Until 1839, naturally occurring rubber was virtually useless in any other temperate environment higher than 80 degrees and lower than 50. That year, independent inventor Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped a mixture of natural rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove and yielded a product which retained its useful properties in a much wider range of temperatures. Good thing he was named after a tire company…
In 1895, Alfred Nobel accidentally spilled some nitroglycerin which, luckily, was absorbed by a gravelly substance known as Kieselguhr. Instead of blowing himself up, he had just invented a way to keep Nitro stable. Literally exploding profits from sales of his invention led him to start the annual award of the prizes which bear his name to this day.
In 1968, 3M research scientist Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to create the “stickiest” glue in the world. But his first, failed attempts yielded just the opposite. It wasn’t until 1975 that the company realized what they had and began marketing the Post-It Note, one of the firm’s most profitable products ever.
The Microwave Oven
in 1945, a Raytheon engineer named Percy Spencer was experimenting with a Magnetron set to emit much lower radiation levels when a chocolate candy bar melted in his shirt pocket. Good thing it wasn’t in his pants…
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
Turn of the century health and nutrition amateur Keith Kellogg was experimenting with wheat flakes when he allowed a batch to get too soggy. Rather than throwing it out, he fortuitously let the batch dry. The result was the simple breakfast cereal we know today.
In 1990, Pfizer Pharmaceutical company researchers were trying to come up with a drug which restricted the flow of blood to the heart. The exact opposite was the result of one batch, which also yielded a curious side effect: Raging boners that lasted for hours. The rest, as they say, is History…