Accidental Genius: Science in Serendipity

Alice Whitehead

Many of the biggest discoveries in the science community have been borne out of the accidents of scientists or development of unrelated technologies. There have been countless examples over the past few centuries. Here we recount, arguably, the ten most important serendipitous discoveries:

10. Corn Flakes

Corn flakes

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One day in 1895, Will Keith Kellogg was experimenting and attempting to perfect some cereal recipes when he forgot about some boiled wheat that was left on the side. The wheat had become flaky, but to not be wasteful, Kellogg and his brother cooked it nonetheless. The result was crunchy and flaky, yet it went on to become one of the biggest and most popular breakfast cereals, Corn Flakes.

9. Viagra


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Viagra must be in the running for the most inadvertent drug side effect ever. In the early 1900s, Simon Campbell and David Roberts had made a drug that was designed to treat high blood pressure and angina. But at the time they had no idea of the popularity their creation would have. Originally called UK92480, the pair discovered the powerful side effects that patients were experiencing during human trials. They had accidentally invented a drug to treat erectile dysfunction and subsequently the little blue pill was named Viagra.

8. Teflon


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Teflon, or ‘polytetrafluoroethylene’, is the slippery non-stick coating used in cookware. It was stumbled upon in 1938 by Roy Plunkett while he was trying to create a way to make refrigerators home-friendly, with a safe refrigerant. Plunkett found that the resin was resistant to extreme heat and chemicals but it wasn’t until the 60s that Teflon was employed for non-stick cookware, as we know it today.

7. Vaseline


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In 1859, Robert Chesebrough was a 22-year-old British chemist visiting a small town in Pennsylvania where petroleum had recently been discovered. He became intrigued by a natural by-product of the oil drilling process. This product, petroleum jelly, appeared to be remarkably useful for healing skin cuts and burns. In 1865, after purification and patenting, Vaseline was complete.

6. Dynamite


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Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, was transporting the highly flammable liquid ‘nitroglycerin’ when he realised one of the container cans had broken, leaking the liquid. However, by chance the material in which the cans were being transported – a rock mixture called ‘kieselguhr’ – was able to absorb and stabilise the liquid nitroglycerin. The product was patented in 1867 and Nobel named it dynamite.

5. Anaesthetic


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Without this hysterical accidental discovery, medicine would not be the same today. Ether and nitrous oxide were extensively used for recreation in the early 1800s. Gatherings called ‘laughing parties’ – where groups of people would inhale either of the gases – became increasingly popular. Coincidentally, it was found that those under the influence of these compounds didn’t feel any pain.

4. Super Glue

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During World War II, Dr Harry Coover mistakenly came across an extremely quick and strong adhesive. Initially considered for clear plastic gun sights for allied soldiers, the product appeared to have great commercial potential. However, it wasn’t until 1951 that the product was rediscovered and was eventually rebranded to ‘Super Glue’ in 1958.

3. Microwave


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In 1945, Percy Spencer accidentally stumbled upon discovering the cooking abilities of microwave radiation when working in a radiation laboratory. While fiddling with an active radar, again during World War II, he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Originally almost 1.8 metres tall and weighing 340kg the microwave oven was first sold in 1946 under the name ‘Radarange’.

2. Renewable energy


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In October last year, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee were attempting to make methanol from carbon dioxide when they realised their small catalyst had, in fact, turned the carbon dioxide directly into liquid ethanol. The reaction uses tiny spikes of carbon and copper to reverse the combustion process. Unexpectedly, they had stumbled upon a way to convert a potent greenhouse gas into a sustainable renewable energy source – a well deserving second place.



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But, of course, the title of number one accidental genius has to go to Sir Alexander Fleming. In 1928, Fleming was a Professor of Bacteriology at St Mary’s Hospital in London. While experimenting with the influenza virus, Fleming had colonies Staphylococcus bacteria growing in Petri dishes around his lab. During this time, he decided to take a two-week holiday.

When he returned, he found that, oddly, the bacteria he was growing in cultures had been contaminated. Not only this, but the bacteria appeared unable to grow on or even near this contaminant! Fleming went on to culture this contaminant and discovered it was Penicillium mould. And so, the first ever antibiotic, Penicillin, was found.

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