You don’t have to follow Nihilist Arby’s to realize that nothing matters and life on this planet is the result of a series of accidents. Somewhere in the midst of all of the Big Bang-ing and cosmic caroming, we hit the Goldilocks sweet spot and the primordial soup goop was just right. As a species, we’ve commonly used biomimicry to essentially “borrow” from Mother Nature and this vast test bed of evolutionary trial and error. So it should come as no surprise that some of the most invaluable technological discoveries can also be chalked up to mere happenstance. After all, an uncovered petri dish next to an open window may have given us the most significant medical discovery of the 20th century — penicillin.
Some people may be familiar with the story behind the first ink jet printer or perhaps even the first inadvertent LSD trip, but even fewer may know the story behind seemingly omnipresent items like plastics or even the microwave oven. As the saying goes, necessity may be the mother of invention, but wonderful systematic hitches and all-out glitches have certainly played a part in many a eureka moment. The word “accident” entered the English language from the Latin verb “cadere,” meaning “to fall.” With that in mind, here are the best accidental inventions to seemingly fall right into our laps.
While today’s pacemakers may be smaller than the size of a vitamin and even function without internal batteries, this certainly hasn’t always been the case. In fact, around the mid-19th century, some early variants of the pacemaker were the size of a television and needed to be plugged in to function. Fortunately, we have Wilson Greatbatch to thank for helping set the stage for the first commercially viable implantable pacemaker as we know it.
In 1956, while testing equipment to better monitor cardiac acoustics, Greatbatch inadvertently plugged the wrong transistor into the device. This specific transistor — more than 100 times as powerful as the transistor he intended to use — produced a massive electrical pulse. As it turned out, this burst was similar to a natural cardiac rhythm. He spent the next two years fine-tuning his discovery, and in 1958 he presented a series of these units to surgeons at Buffalo’s Veterans Administration Hospital. The two scientists eventually used this early pacemaker and a pair of Texas Instrument transistors to successfully control the heartbeat of a dog.
As one could probably assume by simply beholding the veritable smorgasbord of fast-food chains peppering this truly blessed landscape, a lot of Americans don’t cook. In fact, per the latest research, most Americans specifically “hate” cooking, and who could blame them? Why carefully prepare an ornate meal passed down lovingly from generation to generation when we can just as easily zap a Cup Noodles or cheeseburger Hot Pocket and numbly force the nutrient-less hunk o’ cancer down our throats?
Nonetheless, thanks to the godsend Percy Spencer, we have this truly magical box. In 1946, the Raytheon engineer was testing a military-grade magnetron and not too long afterward, his snack of choice had melted in his pocket. (Fun fact: While most people said that pocket snack was a chocolate bar, according to Spencer’s grandson, it was actually a peanut cluster.)
One year after this incident, the first commercial microwave, the Radarange, hit the shelves with a price tag of a cool $2,000. Less than 20 years later, more than 1 million microwaves were sold annually and the rest, as the say, is history. The next time you’re alone in your apartment eating that pizzadilla to Seinfeld reruns, remember to pour out a little Tapatio for your boy Percy.
While neural dust may not be as much of a household name as some of the other accidental discoveries on this list, it may hold the most promise moving toward the next century. Jamie Link, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, won the $50,000 grand prize in the Collegiate Inventors Competition for discovering this so-called “smart dust.”
While attempting to produce thin multilayered film on a crystalline substrate, the silicon chip itself accidentally broke. Link then noticed that each of these pieces retained properties of the original chip. Researchers now propose this neural dust could be used in everything from more acute drug delivery methods to treating paralysis.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are using this technology to study and manipulate the human brain. This team is using a “sprinkling” of these dust-sized electronic sensors in the cortex, and then “interrogating” these neural dust via ultrasound. This elaborate system of sensors and circuits is then used to convert high-frequency sound waves into electrical signals and vice versa. This so-called tetherless system exists as a far less invasive means of monitoring and manipulating neural activity than the so-called BrainGate computer interfaces that literally use a series of cables and sensors implanted through the skull itself.
Researchers at Brown University successfully used the BrainGate method to allow a paralyzed woman to use a series of robotic limbs to lift and sip a cup of coffee using only her brainwaves. Similarly, three other paralyzed individuals have used the BrainGate brain computer interface to type on a screen, and one of these participants was even able to accurately type around 39 characters per minute. Down the road, this neural dust could be used to eliminate the need for this bulky and invasive implant system altogether.
Plastic is so ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives at this point in time that most of could hardly imagine a world without it. But the petroleum byproduct has only been around for about 100 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, the resin shellac was widely used to insulate the newfangled electronics of the day. There was one small problem: Shellac is woefully labor-intensive to collect.
Shellac was originally harvested by scraping hardened East Asian lac beetle dumps from trees. Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland set out to discover a cheaper and more efficient method for insulating wiring, without the need for manually harvesting the dumps. While impregnating wood with a phenol and formaldehyde mixture, he eventually stumbled upon what would be the first synthetic plastic, now commonly known as Bakelite. This product showed a particularly high resistance to heat, chemical action, and electricity, making it exceedingly useful for the burgeoning electric and automotive industries of the day.
Today, plastics have become more bane than boon. The petroleum byproduct is so common on our planet, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more hunks of plastic in our “garbage patch“-riddled oceans than actual living aquatic organisms.
In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was testing a series of cathodes at his laboratory in Wurzburg to see whether these rays could pass through glass. During this process, he detected a faint green fluorescence radiating from a chemically coated screen. This type of radiation would later be named “X-ray” due to its unknown origin. The following week, Röntgen used this process to X-ray his wife’s hand. (This first X-ray image swept through the scientific community and would eventually both inspire and terrify Thomas Edison.) Just two weeks after Röntgen’s announcement, Friedrich Otto Walkhoff would take the world’s first dental radiograph.