Accidental discoveries

Do you know what the invention of the telephone, the Post-it note and the discovery of Velcro have in common? All were discovered by accident. Usually scientific progress is associated with rigorous research and analysis, but it’s not always the case. A surprising number of discoveries owe a lot to chance.

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is one example. It took place in 1928 when he left a culture plate smeared with Staphylococcus bacteria on his lab bench while he went on a two-week holiday. He came home to see that the culture had been contaminated by a fungus, which stopped the bacteria growing. He had discovered an antibiotic!

This was by no means the first accidental discovery. Throughout the centuries, such discoveries have led to some of the world’s greatest breakthroughs in all areas of life. They were particularly numerous in the field of chemistry - take a look at the Xperimania timeline for many examples. Here are just a few more examples of inventions discovered by chance or ”happy accident” - sometimes discovered while scientists were looking for something entirely different!

  • Post-it notes

In 1970, a chemist named Spencer Silver was working in the 3M research laboratories trying to develop strong glue. His work resulted instead in an adhesive that wasn’t very sticky. When pulling apart two pieces of paper stuck together with that adhesive, Spencer discovered that the glue stuck either to one paper or the other. That seemed like a pretty useless invention. Four years later a colleague who was singing in the church choir was however hit by a brilliant idea. He used markers to keep his place in the hymn book, but they kept falling out. So he coated them with Spencer’s glue. As if by magic, they stayed in place yet lifted off without damaging the pages. The Post-it note was born. Today, it is one of the most popular office products available.

  • Cellophane

The idea of cellophane, the most popular clear plastic wrapper, jumped to the Swiss textile engineer Jacques Brandenberger’s mind when he was seated at a restaurant. After a customer spilled a bottle of wine onto the tablecloth, he went back to his laboratory convinced that he would discover a way to apply a clear film to cloth, making it waterproof. He conducted research with different materials and eventually applied liquid viscose to cloth. The experiment failed as the cloth became too stiff and brittle. Brandenberger however noted that the coating peeled off in a transparent film that might have other applications. By 1908 he developed a machine that could produce transparent viscose sheets which he marketed as cellophane.

  • Velcro

The Velcro fastener was invented in 1941 by George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer. The idea came to him after he took a close look at the burrs which kept sticking to his clothes and his dog’s fur when walking in the Alps. He examined the burrs with a microscope and decided to devise a unique fastener that copied the burrs’ microscopic hooks. Although de Mestral first met with resistance and even laughter, he stuck to his idea. By trial and error, he realised that nylon when sewn under infrared light formed tiny but tough hooks, which easily attached themselves to softer, velvety nylon fabric. Did you know that de Mestral named his invention Velcro after the French words velours (meaning velvet) and crochet (hook)?

Chance is not enough to make such key discoveries. The scientist or inventor must have a prepared and open mind, to detect and understand the importance of the unforeseen incident and to use it constructively. As the French scientist Louis Pasteur famously said: “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind”. Although he was speaking at the inauguration of the Faculty of Science at the University of Lille in 1854, the quote is still relevant today.

The demand on scientific research is currently very high as it is key to solve society’s critical problems related to food, health or energy for instance. An unexpected chance event should not be overlooked. Tomorrow’s open and prepared minds must also be fostered. This preparatory work can start at school from a very early age. It is why science education is so crucial in the development of critical, informed and open minds which will deliver tomorrow’s innovations. Do you feel tempted by the challenge? Open your ears and mind, and maybe one day you will also be hit by “Eureka”!