Scientific Anthology: Accidental Discoveries


Throughout history many people have stumbled upon a discovery accidentally. Some examples of these accidental discoveries occur when someone is working on an experiment and it results in a completely different outcome then expected. No matter how these discoveries were made, there has been several significant discoveries that happened accidentally in history. These accidental discoveries may produce a physical product, but it also allows people to keep an open mind in their experiments, not knowing what the outcome may be. It is interesting to look at these accidental discoveries and see how one experiment can turn into something completely different. In this anthology, you will find a collection of examples of accidental discoveries. These examples were selected because we believe they have had a significant impact in the world.

The invention of the daguerreotype, the forerunner of modern photography was invented accidentally by Louis Daguerre. This is a perfect example of an accidental discovery as Mr. Daguerre spent years trying to create images through all sorts of material. Daguerre mainly tried to recreate images on iodized silver plates. He was trying to figure out the right combination of chemicals to properly yield an image or photo of some sorts often was the case that he failed and was left empty handed and extremely frustrated. However, as displayed through the history of science, persistence will always yield to positive results and in this case it did.  “One night, after another futile attempt, he stored plates in a cabinet packed with chemicals; to his wonder the next morning, the fumes from a spilled jar of mercury produced a perfect image on the plate” (Johnson 134-135). The chemicals reacted to the mercury and in turn produced the first photographic image. This of course came to known as daguerreotype which he named it after himself. The use of modern photography was founded on a man leaving a plate in a dirty cabinet.  It is astonishing to learn how weird discoveries transpire and in this case the ability to take photos. The video below displays how the daguerreotype was first invented and used during the nineteenth century. The video was provided by the daguerreobase where it discusses many things about the daguerreotype including its impact on photography. The image below provides some perspective to what a image produced by a daguerreotype would look like. Overall it is quite amazing to see how science and luck can create a very useful invention used by many people across the world.


The pacemaker is a very valuable instrument used to control abnormal heart beats. However, the discovery of this valuable device was founded accidently by a World War II Navy veteran by the name of Wilson Greatbatch.  Mr. Greatbatch had a big interest in animal behavior after he served in the war. He was working at Cornell in the psychology department due to his unique ability to work on experiments concerning animal heartbeats and brainwaves. Eventually Mr. Greatbatch was in a serious conversation with two surgeons discussing the problems of irregular heartbeats. This problem stuck in Greatbatch’s brain as he was always trying to seek a solution to this problem. Fast forward a couple more years and Mr. Greatbatch was working on a new oscillator at the Chronic Disease Institute. “One day while working on the device, Greatbatch happened to grab the wrong resistor” (Johnson 135). This then lead to the oscillator beginning to simulate a familiar heartbeat or rhythm.  The error by Mr. Greatbatch of using the resistor allowed for the device to simulate a proper heartbeat rather than record one.  Finally Greatbatch found a solution for irregular heartbeats as the device shocked the heart back into sync at specified intervals. Thus the pacemaker was born and in turn saved millions of people’s lives around the word all due to the fact a World War II veteran pulled out the wrong instrument.The image below shows what the pacemaker looked like when it was invented decades ago. This very small invention has created a large impact for people dealing with irregular heartbeats around the world.
Ecosystem Science

Ecosystem science is often associated with an easy class we take in high school or college. Most kids in the class expect to get a good grade because they are thinking how hard is it to learn about the environment and ecosystems. Yes there are multiple ecosystems around the world and they vary from each one, however does anyone wonder how we first initially learned about ecosystems. The answer is through error and as we have seen throughout the course some of the sciences best discoveries have been achieved through making a mistake or error. Ecosystem science first came about from a guy named Joseph Priestley. Mr. Priestley was doing whatever any scientist did at the time which of course is experimentation. However, the results he expected where far from what he thought initially. “When Joseph Priestley first placed a mint plant in a bell jar to deprive it of oxygen, he expected that the plant would die, just as mice or spiders perished in the same circumstances” (Johnson 138). However the plant did the exact opposite as it lived and in fact “thrived” in the jar. This then sparked Priestley to research more and more about this groundbreaking discovery of his. He became thoroughly astonished and mesmerized. Ultimately Priestley came to be an unprecedented conclusion in which it became one of the cornerstones for ecosystem science. “The realization that plants expel oxygen as part of photosynthesis, and indeed have created much of the earth’s atmosphere” (Johnson 138).  Later on in history Priestley has been dubbed the name the father of the ecosystem as the image portrayed illustrates his importance and experiment.


Velcro is often overlooked as a scientific discovery. The main cause for this is that it doesn’t have the same scientific influence the discovery of gravity has for humans on earth. However, Velcro has proved to be an extremely valuable invention in its own right. From clothing to construction to even the military Velcro has been widely used and influential for people all over the world. The invention of Velcro came about from a Swiss engineer by the name of Georges de Mestral over a hundred years ago. From a very early age de Mestral had an interest in science and specifically innovation, by age 12 he got a patent for a type of model plane. This inventive mind de Mestral possessed would lead to his best discovery of all, Velcro. The eureka moment that allowed de Mestral to invent Velcro came under very odd circumstances. “Walking his dog in the woods, he spotted that his woollen socks and jacket and his dog's fur were covered with burrs - small seeds or dry fruits found in many types of plant including thistles and, in this case, burdock” (Stephens). This of course led to more testing and leading to de Mestral see that the burrs could hook into clothes.  De Mestral saw that this could easily bind two different materials allowing for all sorts of different types of fashion. Eventually de Mestral discovered nylon which was the perfect match for tough hooks of the burr. By 1955 the hook and loop fastener or Velcro was patented and used around the world for all types of purposes. The image below illustrates the burrs that were used by de Mestral for discovery of Velcro.


X-rays are often associated with athletes waiting to see if they are injured or not or something you have to do when you think you broke a bone. The use of x-rays have been extremely important in modern science as stated above for its ability to detect medical issues or injuries.  However, the discovery or invention or x-rays was actually an accident like most important scientific breakthroughs. The man who invented x-rays was a German physicist by the name of Wilhelm Roentgen. Like many scientists he was working meticulously trying to experiment new things. Eventually he was toying with a cathode tube and yielded some very interesting results. “Despite the fact that the tube was covered, he saw that a nearby fluorescent screen would glow when the tube was on and the room was dark. The rays were somehow illuminating the screen” (Business Insider). Roentgen then uncovered the power and use of these rays as he placed his hand on the table. He was able to see the bone structure of his hand on the table due to the rays. Ultimately Roentgen used a photographic plate to be able to produce the best images or in this case x-rays. This accidental discovery was a huge hit for medical institutions around the world as patients and doctors can now physically see bone damage, tissue damage, or any other problems. The image below was the first photo and result of the x-ray Mr. Roentgen created. Of course the image is not as visible as today’s x-rays, however it was still extremely usable for the time period.


In 1928 Alexander Fleming was working as a professor of bacteriology at Saint Mary’s Hospital in London. While analyzing petri dishes with staphylococcus, bacteria that causes boils, abscesses, and sore throats, he noticed a spot of mold growing within the dish. Despite the petri dish being full of staphylococcus colonies, the area surrounding the mold spot was clear, “as if the mold had secreted something that inhibited bacterial growth” (“Discovery and Development of Penicillin”). Fleming then began testing the secreted substance on other bacteria such as streptococcus, meningococcus, and diphtheria bacillus. He discovered that the mold’s juice was able to kill the bacteria. Fleming and his assistants began working to isolate the juice, which would later be called Penicillin. He was not the one to purify Penicillin; however, it was scientists at Oxford. Although Alexander Fleming never intentionally made Penicillin, his accidental discovery would change the world of medicine and antibiotics for many years to follow.

Alexander_Fleming GTY_penicillin_ml_141107_16x9_992        


While working for DuPont in 1938, Roy Plunkett was an engineer studying refrigerants. As he was running an experiment with refrigerants, Plunkett noticed one of the gases had polymerized. This polymer, that Plunkett had created accidentally, would be known as polytetrafluoroethylene, or Teflon. This polymer turned out to be very slippery and “inert to virtually all chemicals” (“1938 Roy Plunkett”). In 1945 DuPont trademarked polytetrafluoroethylene as Teflon. The military was the first ones to benefit from Teflon, as they used it in artillery shells and in the production stages of the Manhattan Project. As the years progressed, Teflon was implemented into electrical cable insulation, stain repellants, and cookware coating. Plunkett’s accidental discovery of Teflon was significant not only for the military, but also for so many households across America.

Teflon (1)


In 1856 William Perkin was working on making quinine, a cure for Malaria. During his tests however, Perkin’s experiment resulted in mauve. Mauve is a brightly colored, purple substance, which is used to permanently dye clothes. The chemicals that resulted in this purple substance were originally from coal tar. Prior to Perkin’s mauve, clothes were dyed with plant materials. Often times, the plant-based dyes were a dully colored and would fade out. Perkin’s dye “revolutionized the dyeing industry forever” (“How was mauve made?”). The shade of purple Perkin created would later be called aniline purple and would gain great recognition; even by the Empress of France, who had dresses made of purple silk. Instead of producing a cure for Malaria, Perkin and his mauve would ultimately change the dyeing industry forever.




Urea is an organic compound, composed of nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Its main function is nitrogen excretion in the body. In mammals, urea is the main nitrogen-containing substance. Herman Boerhaave, a Dutch scientist, who originally found the compound in urine, first discovered urea in 1727. In 1828, Friedrich Wohler artificially synthesized urea. This synthesis was done accidentally when Wohler was attempting to prepare ammonium cyanate. In doing so, Wohler became the first person to synthesize urea inorganically and accidentally. Today, urea can be found in skin care products and fertilizers.  

urea urea1


During World War II, Raytheon supplied 80 percent of magnetron tubes to the US and British forces. The magnetron tubes were used in radar technologies. In 1939, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, was working with an active magnetron tube when he noticed the candy bar in his pocket had melted. Spencer then placed a bowl of popcorn kernels in front of the magnetron, and subsequently they began to pop. In theory, Spencer did not do very much but his discovery would change the appliance industry forever. This was the first time someone discovered the use of microwaves for cooking and it came from the same technology used in military grade radars. Raytheon originally sold microwaves to restaurants mainly because at first, the appliance was the size of a refrigerator. Years later, the company would produce a smaller microwave oven that would spread across America. Spencer’s accidental discovery of microwave cooking changed the cooking world forever.


Example 11


The artificial sweetener saccharin, which is used as a substitute for sugar and is sweeter than sugar, was discovered by accident by Constantine Fahlberg in 1879. The story goes that while he was testing sugar for purity for the U.S government, he was allowed to use the sugar lab for his own research. One night, after reacting compounds and studying sugar he spilled some of his testing on his hand, and as a result, got onto the food that he was about to eat. As he bit into a roll, he noticed how sweet it tasted. Once realizing that it was due to something on his hand, he went back to his lab to see which compound it was. It happened to be that “o-sulfobenzoic acid had reacted with phosphorus (V) chloride and ammonia, producing benzoic sulfimide,” (Hicks). He had accidentally come across the first artificial substitute for sugar. After this compound was patented, it became mass produced and was especially used when sugar was rationed during World War II. Eventually diabetics would use saccharin as a substitute to the sugar that was dangerous to them.

Sweet'N Low

Hicks, Jesse. “The Pursuit of Sweet: A History of Saccharin,” Chemical Heritage Magazine.

Example 12


Albert Hoffman worked for the Swiss company Sandoz after graduating from the University of Zurich 1929. His main goal in 1938 was to synthesize a compound to stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems. The lab was researching and isolating a substance from ergot, which in its natural form is a deadly poison, which in the 9th century caused an outbreak nicknamed St. Anthony’s Fire, and leading to thousands of death. The starting point for the isolation of this compound, and several others coming from the same substance, was lysergic acid. Hoffman combined lysergic acid with various other chemicals just to see what the result would be, in search of his chemical to stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems. One combination, with diethylamine, piqued his interest for several years after it was rejected by pharmacologists. As he began synthesising the compound years later, he felt strange and had to leave his lab. After realizing that he must have somehow ingested his LSD-25 compound through his skin, he decided to purposely ingest the compound to see its effects. After a transformative experience, he began testing on animals and realized that the drug will not in fact kill him or do harm, and he began his private testing.


Schroder, Tom. “Apparently Useless: The Accidental Discovery of LSD.” The Atlantic. 9 September 2014.

Example 13

Smart Dust:

Jamie Link, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, was testing with a multi layer film of silicon when the silicon chip broke accidentally. However, instead of the test culminating in failure, Jamie observed the chip closer and found that each of the smaller, broken off chips, the smart dust, retained the properties of the larger silicon film. These tiny chips can be especially important in detecting small particles, biological and chemical agents, pollution in water, and even particles that terrorists could want to dissolve in drinking water or in the atmosphere. There is currently a push to use these smart dust particles to monitor much of the world, with usages in cities and factories and buildings across the world. It brings up a debate about privacy, and if the use of these particles to monitor much of the world can be ethical. However, scientists state that the more information that we can gather about the world the better, and that the use of these particles on a wide scale will help humanity in the long run.


Sutter, John D., “Smart Dust aims to monitor everything.” CNN Labs. CNN. 3 May 2010.
Example 14

Vulcanized Rubber:

For Charles Goodyear, figuring out the process of stabilizing, or vulcanizing, rubber was a lifelong obsession. The rubber industry in the early 1800’s was in deep trouble: rubber melted in the hot summers and cracked in the winter; there needed to be some way to stabilize the substance to be durable during these weather conditions, and Goodyear was determined to find it. He constantly put his family into financial hardships; he was forced to relocate several times, and even spent nights in a debtor’s prison for failing to have payed back those who lent him money. He sold nearly everything that his family owned, and used his kitchen to mix rubber with all sorts of different chemicals. One day, Goodyear accidentally spilled sulfur into his rubber on the stove, and to his amazement, it worked as a stabilizer; it even hardened when temperatures were rising. For the rubber industry, this changed everything. Naugatuck, Connecticut became the leader in vulcanized rubber production, and Goodyear was able to patent his formula and revel in his success, even if for only a short time. All rubber products that we see in use today can claim descendant from Goodyear’s vulcanization, a solution to  what has been labeled as the greatest puzzle of the 19th century.



Somma, Anna Marie. “Charles Goodyear and the Vulcanization of Rubber.” Connecticut History.

Example 15

Super Glue:

While working for Eastman Kodak in 1942, chemist Harry Coover was tasked with developing a gun sight to be used in the World War. While testing the compound cyanoacrylate, he had found that it was too difficult to work with because the compound kept sticking to everything that it touched. The compound was put aside for its difficulty in fitting into molds. He would not return to this compound until 10 years later, when, working on sealing windshields for aircraft. He had remembered the compound when a college used a polymer to effectively secure the airshield to the aircraft. When he saw this, he saw the polymer not as a casting material as was the original intention, but a material to be used as a glue. He debuted his polymer on a game show by successfully suspending the host from a set of glued pipes using his compound, Eastman 910. Since it began to be spread out, it has been used in a vast array of circumstances; from open heart surgery, forensic investigations, fixing bone fractures, and Coover’s proudest, its use in Vietnam to seal wounds and prevent soldiers from bleeding out. All of this came from, “the damn problem,” that was sticking to everything.


Shapiro, T. Rees., “Harry Coover, Super Glue Inventor, dies at 94.” The Washington Post. 28 March 2011. Web.

As we have seen, some of the world’s most important and useful inventions have been brought to being without intention. From Daguerreotypes, which launched photography out of the shadows and eventually into everyone’s pockets, to superglue, which saved lives during war and continues to save lives in surgery, we can see how serendipity plays out in real time. They are a stark reminder that even in a field governed by precise method and measure, the most random of occurrences can bring about the biggest changes to an industry.
Scientific Anthology: Accidental Discoveries

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