Not just genius minds but serendipity too has a great role to play in science and technology. History shows us several instances where happy accidents have given birth to wondrous discoveries in science. The famous discovery of electromagnetism is exemplary in this case. However, there are many more accidental discoveries that have successfully shaped our electronics industry. So next time your research goes wrong, do not feel low as it might lead you to unearth another wonder.
Our list begins with X-rays – the child born out of a marvellous accident. The story goes back to 1985 when Wilhelm Roentgen, a German physicist, was working with a cathode ray tube. Even though the tube was covered, he noticed that a nearby fluorescent screen would glow whenever the tube was switched on in a dark room. When he tried to block the rays by placing objects in front of them, the barriers seemed to not make any difference. As he placed his hand in front of the tube he could see his bones in the image projected on the screen. He then replaced the tube with a photographic plate to capture the images, creating the first X-ray. Soon after, medical institutions and research departments adopted the technology.
After the discovery of X-rays in 1895, Henri Becquerel, a French physicist became intrigued with it and decided to investigate it further in 1896. He wanted to find out the connection between X-rays and phosphorescence – the natural property of certain substances to emit light. He tried to expose photographic plates using uranium salts hoping it would absorb X-rays from sunlight. While his experiment failed that day due to the sky being cloudy, he developed the plates anyway. He found that images showed up clear even in absence of the sun. He then theorised and proved that uranium emits radioactive rays.
Percy Spencer, an American physicist was working with a vacuum tube called magnetron in 1945 as part of a research for Raytheon Corporation. While testing the magnetron he noticed that the chocolate bar he had in his pocket melted. He became intrigued and started experimenting the tube with other items like popcorn and eggs. He then concluded that the heat these objects experienced was from the microwave energy. Based on his accidental discovery he made the first microwave weighing 750 pounds. It was 51/2 feet tall and cost about $5,000. After that, the first countertop microwave was introduced in 1965.
In 1956, Wilson Greatbatch, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in University at Buffalo, was building a device to record heart rhythm. He reached into a box for a resistor to complete the circuitry but accidentally pulled out the wrong one. He installed the ill-fitting resistor and noticed that the circuit emitted electrical pulses that made him think of the timing of the heartbeat. This new device made him realise that it might be possible to create a version small enough to actually provide this stimulation to the heart. He began to shrink his device and on May 7, 1958, a version of his pacemaker was successfully inserted into a dog.
Do you use inkjet printers in your office? You might not know that discovery of its principle was also a result of a mistake caused by an engineer at Canon. He accidentally placed a hot iron on his pen. He observed that the ink was ejected from the pen’s point a few moments later. The discovery of this principle which led to the invention of inkjet printers.