10 Accidental Inventions and the Funny Stories Behind Them

It's the Principle of Limited Sloppiness: fortuitous or accidental discoveries (we're talking screwups) that actually helped humankind.

By Andy Simmons from Reader's Digest | March 2010
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    Penicillin

    Inventor: Alexander Fleming
    Year: 1928
    What Happened: Halfway through an experiment with bacteria, Alexander Fleming up and went on vacation. Slob that he was, he left a dirty petri dish in the lab sink.
    Big Discovery: When he got back, he found bacteria had grown all over the plate, except in an area where mold had formed.
    As a Result: That discovery led to two things: 1) penicillin and 2) Mrs. Fleming hiring a maid.

    Anesthesia

    Inventor: Horace Wells
    Year: 1844
    What Happened: In its salad days, nitrous oxide was strictly a party toy, since it made people howl like hyenas. But a friend of the dentist took too much of the stuff at a laughing-gas stage show and gashed his leg.
    Big Discovery: The friend hadn't realized he'd hurt himself.
    As a Result: Nitrous oxide became an early form of anesthesia.

    Saccharin

    Inventors: Constantin Fahlberg and Ira Remsen
    Year: 1879
    What Happened: After spending the day studying coal tar derivatives, Fahlberg left his Johns Hopkins laboratory and went to dinner.
    Big Discovery: Something he ate tasted particularly sweet, which he traced to a chemical compound he'd spilled on his hand. Best of all, it turned out to be calorie-free.
    As a Result: He cut Remsen and the university out of millions of dollars when he secretly patented the breakthrough discovery, saccharin.

    The Microwave

    Inventor: Percy Spencer
    Year: 1946
    What Happened: With the end of World War II, the Raytheon engineer was looking for other uses for the magnetron, which generated the microwaves for radar systems. While Spencer was standing next to the device one day, a chocolate bar in his pocket melted.
    Big Discovery: The magnetron worked even better on popcorn.
    As a Result: Orville Redenbacher became very rich.

    Viagra

    Inventors: Scientists at Pfizer
    Year: 1992
    What Happened: A Welsh hamlet was ground zero for a test on a pill to fight angina. Unfortunately for the afflicted, it had little success against the disease.
    Big Discovery: Though it didn't work, the men taking part in the study refused to give up their medicine.
    As a Result: The scientists switched gears and marketed the drug, Viagra, for a very different purpose.

    Chewing Gum

    Inventor: Thomas Adams
    Year: 1870
    What Happened: He was experimenting with chicle, the sap from a South American tree, as a substitute for rubber. After mounting failures, the dejected inventor popped a piece into his mouth.
    Big Discovery: He liked it!
    As a Result: Adams New York No. 1 became the first mass-produced chewing gum in the world.

    Silly Putty

    Inventor: James Wright
    Year: 1943
    What Happened: During the war years, the General Electric engineer combined silicone oil and boric acid in an attempt to find a cheap alternative to rubber for tank treads, boots, etc.
    Big Discovery: It didn't work. But the scientists had a blast bouncing and stretching his mistake, when they weren't using it to transfer comics onto paper.
    As a Result: Kids had a blast playing with the Silly Putty too.

    Botox

    Inventors: Alastair and Jean Carruthers
    Year: 1987
    What Happened: The couple were using small doses of a deadly toxin to treat 'crossed eyes' eyelid spasms and other eye-muscle disorders when they noticed an interesting side effect.
    Big Discovery: Wrinkles magically disappeared.
    As a Result: The expressionless face became the 'it' look, thanks to Botox.

    Brandy

    Inventor: A Dutch shipmaster
    Year: 16th century
    What Happened: He used heat to concentrate wine in order to make it easier to transport, with the idea of adding water to reconstitute it when he arrived.
    Big Discovery: Concentrated wine is better than watered-down wine.
    As a Result: 'Burnt wine,' or 'brandewijn' in Dutch, became a big hit. Call it brandy, since after a few drinks of the stuff, there's no way you can pronounce brandewijn so a bartender can understand what you're ordering.

    Mauve!

    Inventor: William Perkin
    Year: 1856
    What Happened: He was intent on discovering a cure for one of the deadliest diseases in the world, malaria.
    Big Discovery: While trying to replicate the malaria fighter quinine in his laboratory, Perkin inadvertently discovered the color mauve instead.
    As a Result: Perkin forgot about malaria and made a mint establishing the synthetic dye industry.

    More:
    4 Unusual Useful Inventions
    6 Useless Discoveries