Invented by Accident: Microwaves, Super Glue, Penicillin

Most inventors either succeed or fail to create a product. A few inventors have seen their greatest success in the midst of failure.

Often the best way to make a discovery is to first make a mistake. These inventors improved the lives of millions by what would seem an accidental run-in with fate.

It Changed Cooking Forever: The Microwave Oven

Dr. Percy Spencer was working on a wartime radar research project during World War II when he discovered an invention more suitable for peacetime. While working with a magnetron, a vacuum tube that produces microwave radiation, he noticed that a candy bar he had in his pocket melted. Intrigued, Dr. Spencer then experimented with some popcorn kernels and an egg. He discovered that microwave radiation cooks foods much faster than cooking with heat. He made a metal box in which he left an opening for the microwaves to enter but not escape. When placing foods inside the box he was able to concentrate the microwaves and thus cook foods even quicker. The company he was working for at the time, the Raytheon Corporation, produced the first commercial microwave oven in 1954 and the first domestic version was made by a Raytheon division Amana in 1967. Microwave ovens became household items and changed the face of food preparation forever.

The Discovery of Super Glue

Another wartime experiment led to a peacetime staple. Super Glue was discovered by scientists trying to create transparent gun sights for rifles for World War II. Instead of comprising a clear plastic, they came up with a concoction that stuck to absolutely everything it touched. But these scientists dismissed the product as useless because, well, it stuck to everything and was useless for making gun sights.

Then in 1951, Dr. Harry Coover and Dr. Fred Joyner were working for the Eastman Company on a heat resistant polymer for jet canopies. They happened to concoct the same substance that the previous scientists created years before. Again it stuck to everything. These two scientists, however, recognized it as a potentially useful product. By 1958 the Eastman Company packaged and sold the first substance that would later be called Super Glue.

The Wonder Drug, Penicillin

We have Alexander Fleming to thank for countless saved lives. Fleming first became interested in fighting bacteria in France during the First World War. Upon trying to treat wounded soldiers, he realized there was no way to treat some infections. Then back home in London after the war, on September 3, 1928, Fleming was cleaning up his messy laboratory. He came across glass plates that had contained staphyloccus bacteria for other research he was doing.

One of these plates happened to be growing mold due to a bit of disregard on the good professor’s part. Fleming noticed that there was no bacteria growth around the mold. He concluded that some substance in the mold was killing off the bacteria. He published a paper in 1929 about the possible effects of what he called penicillin. But, Fleming was unable to continue his research on this life saving discovery due to lack of resources.

Then in 1938, a professor of pathology at Oxford University, Howard Florey, picked up Fleming’s 1929 paper and was intrigued. Florey and another researcher Ernst Chain had the large research department and funding that Fleming undoubtedly would have loved ten years prior. Florey and Chain experimented more with penicillin and had used it real world cases by 1942.

 

The problem with penicillin was not that it didn’t work – it worked fantastically – but that it was hard to produce in mass quantities. Oxford University biochemist Dr. Norman Heatley created a device out of bedpans and bottles he found around his hospital that succeeded in making a larger amount of penicillin. Still, even the amount he was able to produce ran out before the patient he was using it on fully recovered.

In 1941 Drs. Heatley and Florey travelled to the U.S. to meet with top biologists with the Department of Agriculture to start what would become the first big push toward how to mass produce penicillin. World War II gave the world a pressing reason to produce as much penicillin possible. By D-Day, June 6, 1944, American, British, and Russian governments and drug companies had found ways to produce enough penicillin to treat every allied soldier’s infected injury.

In 1945, Florey, Fleming, and Chain won a Nobel Prize for their contribution to what had come to be known as “the wonder drug.” And rightly so. Although there is no accurate estimate of how many lives penicillin has saved in its 65 year history, there is only one term to describe the number: countless.

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