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10 Accidental Discoveries that made Big Impact

innovationHundreds of scientists devote all their lives to that one invention or innovation or solution that can work magic on millions. And then, we come to know that some of the most exciting (and useful) scientific discoveries happened just by chance.

'Genius' in such situations is not about coming up with a new solution through painstaking, goal-oriented lab work but in realizing the potential implications of the accident that happened. Legends of these accidental discovers tell us how a ‘scientist’ realized the great utility of the accident and turned it into a whole new finding. Here some of the 10 lucky accidents that became science legends for transformations they brought about in our world:

The Microwave Story

MicrowaveHow many times have chocolate melted in your pockets, and you have just thrown it away or kept it in the refrigerator to set it again? Percy Spencer, an engineer for the Raytheon Corporation, was so engrossed in testing the new vacuum tube which was to be used to drive radar set known as a magnetron that he forgot that he had a chocolate bar in his pocket. Only later did he noticed that the head from the enclosed tube melted the bar into a gooey mess. He then used the microwave heat to cook items like eggs and popcorn kernels. In 1945, he patented the firs-ever microwave oven.

Discovery of X-Rays (and Radioactivity)

X-RaysIn 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen (a German Physicist) was working on a Cathode Ray Tube. Even though he was working in a darkened room, a fluorescent screen would start glowing inexplicably. This would happen whenever he turned on the CRT.

He tried blocking the rays by placing things in front of the tube but still the screen kept glowing. He called his wife to place her hand in front of the tube (just as we would do to keep bright sunlight away from our face) to block the rays. It was then, he noticed that her bones are getting projected on the screen. He replaced the screen with a photographic plate to capture the images and soon, X-rays became widely popular with medical institutions, hospitals and research departments.

Interestingly, the discovery of X-rays led Henri Becquerel to experiment with them in 1896. He was trying to link them to phosphorescence and tried exposing photographic plates with uranium salts. However, the sky was overcast and he could not get the sunlight to complete the experiment. So, he stored his items. Even without light, the photographic plates were found to be exposed later. This led to discovery of 'radioactivity' in uranium salts in 1896.

Potato Chips: Sliced Out of Spite

In 1853, Chef George Crum was hurt when a customer complained that the fries he had made were cut too thick. Out of spite and anger, he sliced potatoes paper-thin and fried them crisp. Needless to say, the potato chips became an instant hit with the diners.

The Velcro Bond

VelcroAs children, we all have hid behind weeds and had to pluck out thorny things that got stuck to our clothes later. Same thing happened with Swiss engineer George de Mestral and his pooch went for a hike in the Alps in 1941. The small burdock burrs clung fast to his clothes, socks and dog’s fur. As he struggled to pull them out, he noticed how the small hooks made it difficult to detach burrs from the fabric and fur. Instead of ignoring this, Mestral used the idea to create the 'Velcro' material. NASA adopted the idea first and today, it has become popular for a fastening system on our sneakers, jackets etc now.

Saccharin, the Artificial Sweetener

SaccharinSaccharin, so often used by diabetics (and dieters) as artificial sweetener or sugar replacement, was discovered accidentally by Constantine Fahlberg in 1879 when he was working on analysis of coal tar.

Fahlberg did not follow the safe lab practices as you would soon learn. He went on to eat dinner without washing his hands (that too after working in the lab all day long). To his surprise, everything he touched tasted sweet. So, he went back into his laboratory and started tasting random chemicals. It turned out that there was an experiment result where o-sulfobenzoic acid had been combined with phosphorus chloride and ammonia which was so sweet.

400 times sweeter than sugar, Saccharin became quite popular during World War I as sugar was rationed then. Fahlberg patented it in 1884. It was found that since body can't metabolize this sugar, people do not get any calories from it. Hence, the concept of zero-calorie sugar was introduced.

Super-Frustrating Super Glue

Super GlueIn 1942, Dr. Harry Coover was working at the Eastman-Kodak Laboratories to create a new precision gun sight. The substance he created - Cyanoacrylate - proved to be a miserable failure as it got stuck to everything it touched. The failure was soon forgotten.

6 years later, Coover was working on an experimental design for airplane canopies when he got himself stuck to the same gooey stuff. This time round, however, Coover observed that the stuff can attach any two things together very firmly even without heat. In 1958, Harry Coover patented the stuff as 'super glue'.

Pacemaker: Fix for the Broken Hearts

PacemakerSo many of us owe our lives or the lives of our loved ones to the Pacemaker. The first pacemaker was developed by Wilson Greatbatch and was implanted into a dog in 1958. The innovation has a very interesting story.

Greatbatch had toyed with the idea of making something that could work like a heart when the heart lost the ability to pump its own muscles but it had seemed like a science fiction to him at the time.

In 1956, when he was building a heart rhythm recording device, he reached out for a resistor to complete the circuitry but pulled out the wrong one. When this 'wrong' resistor was inserted into the circuit, the latter started emitting electrical pulses. This led Greatbatch to think about the well-timed heartbeats and electrical activity of the heart once again. This led to the idea of rhythmic electrical stimulation of heart. He fine-tuned his device, shrunk it, and the Pacemarker turned a new page in the book of medical history.

Play-Doh (or Play Dough)

Play-DohA blessing for the parents with small kids, 'Play Dough' was not an accidental discovery in its strict sense. It was based on observation though – by a nursery school teacher. Noah McVicker worked at a soap company and formulated the clay as wallpaper cleaner. Back then, people used the clay to clean soot (due to coal fire) from their wallpapers. Then, vinyl wallpapers (which could be cleaned with just a wet sponge) became the norm. McVickers were almost out of business when Kay Zufall observed that the kids in her class loved making decorations out of the soft wallpaper cleaner. She discussed this with her brother-in-law Joe, the nephew of Noah. Hence, the McVickers were back with a bang by removing the detergent from the clay and adding colours to it and re-introducing their product as kids' toy.

Teflon: Saving Military Men, Cars & Omelettes

TeflonIn 1938, Chemist Roy Plunkett was working to create a new variety of (much-despised now) ChloroFluoroCarbons (CFCs) for his company DuPont. He left a canister full of experimental gas in the refrigeration chamber and found only a few white flakes instead.

Plunkett experimented with these flakes to find out its properties and discovered that it was a fantastic lubricant with extremely high melting point. This substance was used at first for military gear and then by automotive industry. But now, it is widely used to make non-stick cookware.

Vulcanised Rubber

Vulcanised RubberIn 1830s, natural rubber was already popular to make shoes and boots waterproof. However, natural rubber could not withstand freezing temperatures or extreme heat. Scientist Charles Goodyear was working to make rubber more durable but could not find a good way to do it. It was only by accident, he dropped his rubber concoction on a hot stove in 1839 and it came out like a leather-like substance that was weatherproof. Goodyear could never reap benefits of his discovery. 40 years later, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was named after him.

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