As anyone with a knack for clichés knows, necessity is the mother of invention. However, it could also be said that while good inventions are often the product of necessity, great inventions are accidental. To demonstrate the importance of serendipity, we’ve put together a list of 10 examples of unintentional discoveries that too often we find ourselves taking for granted. In no particular order.
Everybody knows the story – or at least, should – the brilliant yet notoriously absent-minded biologist Sir Alexander Fleming was researching a strain of bacteria called staphylococci. Upon returning from holiday one time in 1928, he noticed that one of the glass culture dishes he had accidentally left out had become contaminated with a fungus, and so threw it away. It wasn’t until later that he noticed that the staphylococcus bacteria seemed unable to grow in the area surrounding the fungal mould.
Fleming didn’t even hold out much hope for his discovery: it wasn’t given much attention when he published his findings the following year, it was difficult to cultivate, and it was slow-acting – it wasn’t until 1945 after further research by several other scientists that penicillin was able to be produced on an industrial scale, changing the way doctors treated bacterial infections forever.
2. The Microwave
In 1945 Percy Lebaron Spencer, an American engineer and inventor, was busy working on manufacturing magnetrons, the devices used to produce the microwave radio signals that were integral to early radar use. Radar was an incredibly important innovation during the time of war, but microwave cooking was a purely accidental discovery.
While standing by a functioning magnetron, Spencer noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. His keen mind soon figured out that it was the microwaves that had caused it, and later experimented with popcorn kernels and eventually, an egg, which (as we all could have told him from mischievous childhood ‘experiments’), exploded. The first microwave oven weighed about 750lbs and was about the size of a fridge.
3. Ice Cream Cones
This story is a perfect example of serendipity, and a single chance encounter leading to worldwide repercussions. It’s also rather sweet.
Before 1904, ice cream was served on dishes. It wasn’t until the World’s Fair of that year, held in St Louis, Missouri, that two seemingly unrelated foodstuffs became inexorably linked together.
At this particularly sweltering 1904 World’s Fair, a stall selling ice cream was doing such good business that they were quickly running out of dishes. The neighboring stall wasn’t doing so well, selling Zalabia – a kind of wafer thin waffle from Persia – and the stall owner came up with the idea of rolling them into cone shapes and popping the ice cream on top. Thus the ice cream cone was born – and it doesn’t look like dying out any time soon.