Innovation is typically a strikingly purposeful process. Hours of work, thousands of dollars, and multitudes of resources come together to create an invention. Very rarely, however, scientists or even just your average Joe will stumble upon an accidental invention while working on another project or doing something completely unrelated. Accidental inventions, although rare and seemingly random, have improved society and made a positive impact on the world.
After earning multiple organic chemistry degrees, Dr. Roy Plunkett took a job with DuPont working with synthesizing new forms of refrigerant. In 1927, he and his assistant were experimenting with a potential gas refrigerant and Dr. Plunkett discovered when the gas was frozen, it became a waxy white powder. The newly discovered substance was useful because it was slippery, non-corrosive, stable, and had a high melting point. The substance had various uses until the 1960s, when it was mainly marketed as Teflon, a coating for non-stick pans. Today, Teflon has many other uses, including coating on glasses, infrared decoy flares, and igniters for rocket propellants.
In the 1950s, Wilson Greatbatch, a medical researcher and assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, was attempting to build a device which could record heart beats. He assembled his device with an incorrect part and thought he had made a mistake, but his error created a device that gave off a rhythmic electrical pulse, identical to the beating of a healthy heart. He quickly realized this invention could help people, and spent two years refining the device to patent the world’s first implantable pacemaker. Prior to Greatbatch’s accidental invention, pacemakers were quite large and could shock patients during use, so his invention was much needed in the medical community. At the time of his death, Greatbatch held over 150 patents.
In 1905, an eleven-year-old boy named Frank Epperson put soda water mixed with powdered flavoring on his porch to cool, leaving the stirring stick inside. He forgot about his beverage, and left it overnight, causing it to freeze and make a chilly snack on a stick. Seventeen years later, after his ice pops were a big hit at a social event, he realized his accidental invention could bring him financial success. He patented his invention in 1924, and sold the patent in 1925 to a company which would create the Popsicle brand.
In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive when he accidentally created a reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. Over the next five years, he attempted to convince his 3M colleagues of his invention’s usefulness. In 1974, a colleague named Art Fry desired a bookmark which could adhere to his hymnbook. Through a company policy that encouraged further development by peers, Fry borrowed Silver’s adhesive idea and created the first Post-It note. Originally marketed as the “Press ‘n Peel,” the product had limited success until 1980, when the company issued free samples and rebranded the product as “Post It Notes.”
Electrical engineer George De Mestral was taking his dog for a walk in the woods when he was fascinated by how well burrs stuck to his pet. Under a microscope, he examined the hooks of the cocklebur and thought they could attach to small loops in clothing. Mestral experimented with various materials and in 1955, created Velcro out of nylon. In 1959, his invention was showcased in a New York City fashion show but it didn’t become popular until NASA used it to secure items in a zero-gravity environment. Hospitals, athletic companies, and other industries caught on and realized the practicality of the material soon after.
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin changed the course of medicine. After returning from a two-week vacation, Fleming found mold had developed on a contaminated staphylococcus culture. When he examined the culture, he noticed the mold prevented the growth of the bacteria. He studied penicillin for three years until two researchers at the University of Oxford continued to develop the antibiotic and tested it as a medicine for mice. In 1942, the first patient was successfully treated for streptococcal septicemia. Penicillin helped to reduce the number of deaths and amputations during World War II, with 650 billion units created per month. Today, penicillin is the most widely used antibiotic in the world.
These accidental inventions have had a huge and lasting effect on the world. Just because a discovery is not intentional does not mean that it cannot be impactful. Had these accidental inventors not pursued their ideas, the advances they made may have never occurred.
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