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Some of the world’s most important technological developments have occurred entirely by chance. Not all the best advances have been derived from dedicated research and experiments. In fact, some of been discovered by pure luck, and even human error.
Nevertheless, we should be hugely grateful for these accidental discoveries. Without them, crucial technologies may never have happened, and the world could be a very different place.
Below, we explore the stories behind six of the most notable technological advances stumbled upon through the centuries.
1. Smoke Detector
Today, smoke detectors save the lives of millions around the world. In some countries, they must now be installed by law, such as their importance to protect lives and buildings from fire damage. It’s said that a working smoke detector reduces a person’s chances of dying in a serious property fire by over 50%. Yet these detectors were stumbled upon by mere chance in the 1930s.
Swiss physicist, Walter Jaeger, was conducting research into the development of a sensor capable of detecting poison gas. Unfortunately for Jaeger, his early-stage devices failed to pick up on them, but his cigarette smoke proved an irritating trigger for them. Jaeger’s technology would eventually be utilised in the world’s first smoke detectors, with most workplaces installing them by the 1950s.
2. Microwave Oven
Who would’ve thought a self-taught engineer with an education ending as early as the fifth grade could devise the microwave oven? Percy Spencer was the brains behind the microwave. During his time working for Raytheon, Spencer developed a passion for vacuum tubes, steering him down the path of investigating magnetrons.
It was while Spencer was standing adjacent to an active magnetron that he realized a chocolate bar had melted in his trousers. The discovery inspired Spencer to design and build a microwave oven for use at Raytheon. Spencer’s reward for the microwave patent? A mere two bucks. The size and expense of microwaves meant Raytheon couldn’t make these ovens turn a profit, but they came down in price to build and use by the 1970s.
3. Vulcanized Rubber
The earliest iterations with rubber proved difficult. It would regularly freeze in the colder months and melt in the warmest months. Charles Goodyear, a man who’d experimented with rubber for some time, randomly introduced gold nitric acid to his rubber compound. This turned the compound black, and Goodyear initially thought it had no material impact. He would later realize it had developed a hard and dry outer layer, but it still struggled in the highest air temperatures.
It was trial and error with Goodyear’s rubber compound for many months. At some point, he added sulphur to the mixture. Legend has it that some of the sulphur-treated rubber fell onto a stove. The rubber refused to melt, proving its heat-resistant capabilities with an almost leather-like exterior. As such, the vulcanized rubber we know today was born. Rubber tyres are now used on most road vehicles, with the condition of tyres still an important safety check as part of MOTs. Goodyear tyres remain a popular model today.
4. Roulette Wheel
The idea of the roulette wheel was conceived by a French inventor named Blaise Pascal. Pascal’s overriding goal was to develop the world’s first perpetual motion machine. His primitive concept of a roulette wheel could not defy the laws of physics, but it could be turned into a unique casino game idea.
This table game has since been enjoyed by generations of players, both in land-based casinos and, more recently, through online casinos. The enduring nature of the game has also empowered developers to conceive of new variants in order to cement roulette in popular culture. The emergence of American roulette is a prime example, and this is now one of the most popular variants. The addition of one extra numbered pocket was easy enough to implement without spoiling the physics of the roulette wheel itself. This version is also known as double-zero roulette since that’s the additional value added to the wheel (00).
Velcro is one of the most versatile technological advancements of the 20th century. It was discovered by an engineer from Switzerland. In the late 1940s, George de Mestral came home from a dog walk to discover both he and his dog were covered in burrs. These are seeds or dry fruits with teeth which can easily attach themselves to the fibres of clothing and hair.
De Mestral was inspired by the teeth of a burr to try and develop a similar system for tape fastenings, using similar hooks or loops, built to interlock. The final concept was made with nylon and patented in 1955. The Velcro brand was named after the French words for velvet and hooks – ‘velour’ and ‘crochet’.
The discovery of Teflon, the resource most used in cookware, aerospace, industrial and automotive applications, also occurred by chance. Chemist Roy J. Plunkett was employed by DuPoint to research and explore refrigerants. Out of nowhere, Plunkett found a frozen sample of tetrafluoroethylene that had mysteriously evolved into a clear, waxy polymer, eventually known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
Teflon, as PTFE was eventually branded, has proven to be non-reactive against all manner of chemicals. It’s become a very useful innovation. So much so that Plunkett was later inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 1985.
And there you have some of the accidental discoveries that humans will benefit from for generations to come. And we’re sure many more innovations are awaiting us.
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