Accidental Discoveries

By | May 18, 2007

Sometimes when trying to do one thing another completely different item will turn up. Here are 10 accidental discoveries that many of us would not want to do without.

One day in the 1940’s while George de Mestral, a Swiss inventor, was walking his dog he noticed that his pants got covered with cockleburs. When he looked them under a microscope he discover their natural hook-like shape. Even though He recognized the potential for a new fastener it took him eight years to finally have two strips of nylon fabric, one like the burrs containing small hooks, and the other like his pants, with soft loops. Pressing the two strips together formed a strong bond. But it could be easily separated, lightweight, durable, and washable. Velcro.

In 1905 Frank Epperson was just a young lad of eleven. One evening Frank mixed himself a drink of soda water powder and water stirring it with a stirring stick. This was a popular drink in 1905. Before he got around to drinking it he was called away leaving the drink on the back porch. The next morning he discovered that with the cold night the mixture was frozen with the stirring stick making a nice handle. Eighteen years later Frank remembered the incident and started producing a product he called Epsicles, in seven flavors. That name didn’t stick but the Popsicle was born.

In 1970, Spencer Silver, who worked in a 3M research lab was trying to develop a strong adhesive. It looked as if he had developed a failure. The adhesive stuck, but then it easily unstuck. Four years later when a colleague singing in the church choir was while using markers that kept falling out of the a hymn book decided to coated them with Spencer’s glue. They stayed in place but came off easily without damaging the pages. The nuisance of just about every office was born. The Post-it note.

Dr, Harry Coover was trying to develop an optically clear plastic for gun sights. The product was too sticky to be used. In fact he once ruined a pair of very expensive glass lens when he stuck them together in the glue. But he finally realized he might have a marketable item. Superglue.

In 1903 French Scientist was working in his lab when he accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor. He heard it break, but when he went to clean it up he was amazed to find that the broken pieces had held together. The flask had held liquid plastic. The liquid plastic had evaporated but a thin coat was left behind, that held the glass together. He discovered Safety Glass.

German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was studying the stream of electrons known as cathode rays. Wanting to know whether the rays were escaping from the glass tube and covered it with black paper. He noticed a glow in the laboratory a few feet away. He discovered that these rays penetrated solids and could record images of human skeletons on photographic negatives. Doctors soon adopted as a standard medical tool X-Rays.

3M seem to be the place of accidental discoveries. Patsy Sherman in 1953 was trying to develop a rubber material that would deteriorate when coming in contact with aircraft fuel. An assistant spilled the compounds on her new tennis shoes. The compound could not be removed. Three years later after improving the compound liquid repellency marketed Scotchguard.

Pure rubber is not very nice. It easily rots, smells terrible, gets too sticky when warm and too rigid when cold. But Charles Goodyear continued to try to resolve the natural problems of rubber so that it could be used. He tried boiling it with a number of items such as magnesia, lime, bronze powder and nitric acid, but nothing seemed to work. Finally he tried it with sulphur, but he accidentally dropped the mixture onto a hot stove. The process of treating rubber with sulphur with great heat improved the strength and resilience, reduced its stickiness and stopped it from smelling. The process is Vulcanized Rubber.

Jacques Brandenberger, a Swiss chemist, in 1908 was trying to create a stain proof tablecloth. He coated the cloth with a thin layer of viscose. The coated tablecloth didn’t sell, but he realized that the coating was airtight and waterproof and could be used to package food. This was the beginning of Cellophane.

Alexander Fleming was researching the flu. He noticed that one of the Petri dishes had become contaminated with mould. He found that the intruder was killing off the Staphylococcus bug. What he had accidentally discovered was Penicillin.

© 2006 Steven G. Atkinson – All rights reserved –


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