'Oops': 9+ Accidental Inventions and Innovations

Sometimes, pure luck is all you need to invent something magical.
Christopher McFadden

Many inventions and discoveries are the product of hard work, diligence, and a sprinkling of genius. However, there are also times when a great invention can be a complete fluke.

Read on to find out about some of the most important accidental inventions and discoveries of all time. 


What are some of the world's most interesting accidental inventions?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the top 10 accidental inventions of all time. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Corn flakes are one of the greatest accidental discoveries

accidental inventions corn flakes
Source: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Millions of people pop open a box of corn flakes each morning, but the popular cereal almost never happened. W. K. Kellogg along with his brother Dr. John Harvey Kellogg developed the first edible corn flake product accidentally. In 1898, while conducting research about patient's diets at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.

Dr. Kellogg first baked a wheat dough at extremely high heat to break down starch contained in the grain into the simple sugar dextrose. John Kellogg called this baking process dextrinization. He and Will worked for years to come up with the recipe for dextrinized flaked cereals — working first with wheat and then corn.

According to the company's origin story, around 1877, Dr. Kellogg created a mixture of flour, oats, and cornmeal, which he baked twice and broke into small pieces for serving (after a patient broke her tooth on a biscuit version). He believed that by baking the whole grains at high temperatures, the starch contained in the grain broke down into the simple sugar dextrose and became more easily digestible — thanks to a process he called “dextrinization,".

The company claims that one night in 1898, a batch of wheat-based cereal dough was accidentally left out for an extended period of time, causing it to ferment. When rolled out into thin sheets and baked, the slightly moldy dough produced perfect large, thin, crispy flakes. Over the next several years, Will Kellogg kept experimenting with the recipe and eventually found that corn, rather than wheat, produced even crunchier, crispier flakes.

At first, the cereals were ready to be eaten without the addition of sugar or milk. However, W. K. Kellogg noticed the potential benefits of combining the cereal with milk. He was also a pioneer in the mass marketing of the product to the public.

In the 1900s, to help consumers distinguish his product from 42 other companies with similar products, W.K. signed on each package, saying that these Corn Flakes were the "The Original." Now, that breakfast food has been transformed into different flavor varieties and consumed by millions each year.

2. Another accidental invention was Super Glue

accidental inventions super glue
Source: Earl/Flickr

For decades, the brand Super Glue and similar brands of super-sticky glues have been used to repair any and all broken items around the house. The chemical name of the actual glue itself is actually cyanoacrylate.

Cyanoacrylates were actually discovered in 1942, when a team of scientists at the B.F. Goodrich Company, led by Harry Coover Jr, were working to make clear plastic gun sights during World War II. They stumbled on the formulation for cyanoacrylates, but rejected it for use in gun sights because it was too sticky. 

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In 1951, while working as researchers for Eastman Kodak, Coover and a colleague, Fred Joyner, realized that cyanoacrylate itself had commercial potential. 

Dr. Coover and fellow researcher Fred Joyner were testing hundreds of compounds and when they spread the 910th compound, cyanoacrylate, between two lenses, they found that the lenses were not detachable. They developed the formula for sale as an adhesive, and it was first sold in 1958 under the title "Eastman #910"

Though Super Glue wasn't patented by him, Dr. Coover held 460 other patents.

3. The Microwave oven is another of the best accidental inventions

accidental inventions microwave
Source: grzymkiewicz/iStock

Of all the modern kitchen appliances, the microwave oven is a notable invention. After all, it makes cooking many types of foods very quick and easy. But how many know it was invented accidentally?

Its inventor, Percy Spencer, was an engineer at Raytheon. In 1945, he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket started to melt while he was working near the magnetrons that produced microwaves. Later, Spencer patented the invention along with his employer.

The first microwave brand was called "RadaRange" and it was launched for commercial use after two years. Percy Spencer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame of 1999.

4. The Pacemaker also happens to be an accidental invention

accidental inventions pacemaker
Source: Steven Rodriquez/Flickr

Did you know that a wrong resistor helped in the invention of the implantable pacemaker? While working as an assistant professor in electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo, Wilson Greatbatch designed the first practical implantable pacemaker.

When he was working on building a heart rhythm recording device, he completed the circuit using a wrong-sized resistor. The oscillator required a 10 KΩ resistor, but Greatbatch misread the color coding and got a 1 MΩ resistor by mistake. The new circuit emitted intermittent electrical pulses, rather than continuous pulse, and Greatbatch immediately realized that the device could be used to drive a human heart.

On May 7, 1958, Veterans Administration hospital doctors demonstrated that this two cubic inch device could take control of a dog’s heartbeat.

Greatbatch patented more than 325 inventions, among which was a long-life lithium battery.

5. Penicillin was famously an accidental discovery

accidental discoveries penicillin
Source: Rajitha Ranasinghe/Flickr

No accidental invention list is complete without a mention of Penicillin, which aided in the development of modern medicine. A Scottish bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital, Sir Alexander Fleming introduced penicillin that cures bacterial infections.

As the story goes, after returning from a summer vacation on September 3, 1928, Dr. Fleming noticed that a mold called Penicillium notatum had contaminated his Petri dishes and prevented the growth of the staphylococci.

Unfortunately, this story is only partly true. Fleming did notice a mold that had grown in a petri dish, preventing the growth of bacteria, but it was not immediately obvious to him that the mold would be useful. This is because he did not know what exactly was preventing the bacterial growth. In fact, it took around 14 more years, and the work of many researchers, to isolate the active agent preventing the growth of bacteria - penicillium - and to make enough for use.

The first person treated with penicillin in 1941 was policeman Albert Alexander, who had an uncontrolled bacterial infection following a scratch from a rose. He responded dramatically to the penicillin, but relapsed ten days later. The researchers had only managed to make a small amount of the drug, and although they recycled some from Alexander's urine, he died when supplies ran out.

In March 1942, Anne Miller became the first civilian patient to be treated with penicillin and survive — 14 years after its invention.

6. Dynamite was also invented by accident

accidental inventions dynamite
Source: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, and engineer devoted his time and life to the study of explosives. In their efforts to stabilize nitroglycerin, a highly unstable and explosive liquid, Nobel and laboratory workers experienced several accidents, one of which resulted in an explosion in 1864 that destroyed Nobel's factory and left his brother Emil dead.

Nobel realized that nitroglycerine had to be absorbed by some kind of porous material in order to make it easier to handle. During a stay in Germany, he found nearby a type of porous, absorbent sand or diatomaceous earth, known in German as Kieselguhr. When nitroglycerine was absorbed by the Kieselguhr, it formed a stable paste that could be safely kneaded and shaped, as well as transported, and even ignited, without triggering an explosion.

Nobel combined the stabilized nitroglycerin paste with a type of detonator he’d invented earlier to create dynamite, named for the Greek word for power, dynamis.

He patented his product in 1867. Dynamite was soon used in blasting tunnels, cutting canals, building railways and roads, and also during wartime. To promote peace in the world, in November 1895, Nobel established the Nobel Prizes in his Will.

7. The X-ray is another important of the most important accidental discoveries

x-ray accidental discovery
Source: robyn kingsley/Flickr

Of course, x-rays are a phenomenon of the natural world, and thus can't be invented. However, they were accidentally discovered. The invisible was made visible in 1895.

The discovery of the X-ray was undoubtedly a major advancement in the field of medicine. The credit goes to physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. While testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass, he noticed a glow coming from a nearby chemically coated screen.

Through experimentation, he found that the mysterious light would pass through most substances, but leave shadows of solid objects. Because he did not know what the rays were, he called them X-rays.

Roentgen found that X-rays would also pass through human tissue, allowing the bones and tissue beneath to made visible. By 1897, during the Balkan war, X-rays were already being used to find bullets and broken bones inside patients.

In 1901, he received the first Nobel prize in physics for his work.

8. Teflon was also an accidental invention

accidental inventions teflon
Source: Taken/Pixabay

It all started at the Du Pont Company's Jackson Laboratory in New Jersey on April 6, 1938. Chemist Roy J. Plunkett was working with gasses related to Freon refrigerants. Plunkett had produced a hundred pounds of tetrafluoroethylene gas (TFE) and stored it in small cylinders at dry-ice temperatures before chlorinating it. On checking a frozen canister, he and his associates discovered that the sample had polymerized spontaneously into a white, waxy solid to form polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).

Intrigued by the mysterious chemical, Plunkett began to experiment and categorize its properties. Plunkett realized that the TFE had polymerized to produce this substance — later named Teflon. Du Pont assigned other teams to further investigate the substance, and Plunkett was transferred to the tetraethyl lead division of DuPont, which produced the additive that for many years boosted gasoline octane levels. 

Teflon was trademarked by Du Pont in 1945, and proved to be significant in areas such as aerospace, communications, electronics, industrial processes.

Today, Teflon is prominent in non-stick cookware, soil and stain repellant for fabrics and textile products. PTFE revolutionized the plastics industry. Plunkett was recognized for his numerous marvelous inventions and was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1973, and, in 1985, into the National Inventors' Hall of Fame.

9. Another famous accidental invention was Bakelite

accidental inventions bakelite
Source: Niels van Reijmersdal/Flickr

From the storage of medicine to shelter and transportation, polymers are responsible for countless products we use daily. 

Through the invention of Bakelite, the inventor Leo Hendrik Baekeland helped in the establishment of the modern plastic industry. Bakelite was discovered in 1905 after Baekland failed to create a saleable synthetic substitute for shellac.

Baekeland's synthetic shellac, "Novolak," was a combination of formaldehyde and phenol which failed to catch on as a shellac substitute. But while experimenting with the Novolak formulation, he noticed that controlling the temperature and pressure applied to the two compounds, and by mixing it with wood flour, asbestos, or slate dust, resulted in a material that was moldable yet strong, as well as non-conductive and heat-resistant. He called his invention Bakelite, and referred to it as "the material of 1,000 uses" — a considerable understatement, as it turned out.

But be warned, some older examples of Bakelite often contained small amounts of amosite asbestos! 

10. The Popsicle was also invented by mistake

popsicle accidental inventions
Source: Robert Eiserloh/Flickr

Of course, the idea of frozen treats on a stick were not unique. But the Popsicle brand ice pop was invented accidentally by an 11-year-old. One night in 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson mixed the soda powder and water with a wooden stirrer. But the California native left the glass outside in the cold overnight. In the morning, he noticed that the soda mixture was frozen solid.

By running the glass under hot water and using the stick as a handle, he removed the ice pop out of the class. With this great idea on his hands, Frank named the treats "Epsicles" and started selling them around the neighborhood

Many years later, Epperson's children urged him to change the ice pop's name to what they called it: a Pop's 'Sicle, or Popsicle. 

In 1923, Epperson expanded to selling the treats at a nearby amusement park and filed the patent for his invention the following year. A couple of years later, a broke Epperson sold the rights to the Joe Lowe Company in New York, who marketed it under the brand name Popsicle.

It was a huge success. It is estimated that in the 1920s, around 8,000 popsicles were sold in a single day in Brooklyn’s Coney Island amusement park alone. 

Popsicle is a brand name, but the concept of frozen juice on a stick is called by different names around the world. In the USA it's a popsicle, but in England, it’s an ice lolly. In New Zealand, they are icy poles and the Irish call them freeze pops.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all for today.

These are just some of the many inventions from around the world that were created completely by accident. Are there any other notable examples we have missed?

Feel free to mention them in the comments.

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