In 1945, Percy Spencer was touring the facilities of the Raytheon Company, a U.S. defense contractor. He was studying radar at the time and paused for a minute in front of a magnetron, a device used as an antenna in radar, when he noticed a strange sensation in his pocket. Looking inside, he realized his chocolate bar had melted. While many people would simply chuck the melted monstrosity, a light went off in Spencer’s head. Running to the cafeteria, he returned with a bag of popcorn kernels and an egg. When placed in front of the magnetron, the kernels popped, and the egg exploded on an observing engineer.
Although he didn’t know it then, Spencer’s simple gaffe would revolutionize the world of food, allowing people to quickly heat meals in the comfort of their homes. With the pop of a kernel and the crack of an egg, the microwave was born.
Contrary to what my imagination tells me, most science isn’t very flashy. While my mind runs amok with imagery of lab coat-donning, beaker-clasping madmen, the reality of inventions is often far disconnected from these idealistic expectations.
Not all inventions are made in laboratories. In fact, many aren’t even made by scientists. And even more inventions are complete mistakes — backyard flukes as opposed to scientific ambitions. Below are several of these tales, the unlikely stories of how four everyday items came to be. Many of the people who discovered these inventions weren’t planning to change the world. Even if they started out that way, they found something entirely different than they bargained for.
During the latter portion of the 19th century, coca wines, a type of beverage consisting of cocaine and wine, became a popular beverage and health tonic. By the 1880s, they had reached the height of popularity; even Pope Leo XIII embraced the trend, endorsing a particular brand and carrying a hip flask of the cocaine-containing concoction with him at all times.
Among the many brands of coca wine was Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, a blend made in Atlanta by chemist Dr. John S. Pemberton and marketed as a nerve tonic and headache remedy.
However, the days of coca wine were numbered — the temperance movement was sweeping across the nation, and alcohol bore the brunt of the blame for most societal issues. In 1886, Atlanta enacted a local prohibition law that banned alcohol within city limits. In order to keep his tonic on the market, Pemberton substituted a sugar-based syrup for wine, accidentally stumbling upon what would come to be the world’s most popular soft drink: Coca-Cola.
This original drink was similar to — but not exactly — the recipe that would make the drink famous. After Pemberton passed away in 1888, his former partner Frank Robinson and past associate Asa Candler worked on revising the formula. Even then the recipe contained cocaine, which would soon be removed as knowledge of adverse health effects due to cocaine began to spread.
A Crunchy Creation
In 1853, a cook by the name of George Crum was working at the Moon Lake Lodge in Sarasota Springs, N.Y. French-fried potatoes, which had been introduced to the area earlier by Thomas Jefferson, were considered a delicacy and were a staple of the Lodge’s menu. One day, a customer — rumored to be Cornelius Vanderbilt — complained that his potatoes were cut too thickly and sent them back repeatedly. Frustrated, Crum sarcastically cut the potatoes paper thin, salted them heavily, and fried them in grease. Unexpectedly, and perhaps to Crum’s chagrin, the patron loved them.
These primitive potato chips were dubbed “Saratoga chips,” and quickly spread across the restaurants of the northeastern coast. For a while, they remained mostly restaurant fare, making the leap to the couch — as well as the world at large — during the early decades of the 20th century.
Better Living Through Drugs
One fortuitous day in 1928, Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming headed home after a long day’s work, accidentally leaving a petri dish of culture uncovered. The next day, to his dismay, he noticed the dishes were contaminated by a mold. While on his way to throw out the sample, however, he noticed that the mold appeared to be “dissolving” the bacteria in the dish. Upon closer observation, he formulated the theory that the mold, Penicillium notatum, possessed antibacterial properties, destroying the Staphylococcus aureus that had previously occupied the dish.
In a sense, penicillin had already been discovered; a French medical student named Ernest Duchesne had noted the bacteria-fightin’ powers of P. notatum way back in 1896. However, his work had been largely ignored. As a result, Fleming’s accidental rediscovery of penicillin was groundbreaking, ushering in the age of antibiotics. Yet that role was not Fleming’s to play, as the duo of Howard Florey and Ernst Chain would ultimately go on to isolate the antibiotic released by P. notatum in 1940.
Have a Heart
In mid-1958, Wilson Greatbatch, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Buffalo, was working on a device to help record fast heartbeats. Needing a resistor, he reached into a box of supplies, accidentally pulling out and installing the wrong one.
When he went to test his creation he got quite the surprise. Rather than the continuous circuit he expected, his device would pulse for 1.8 milliseconds before resting for one second and restarting. Almost immediately, Greatbatch recognized the familiar pattern as that of a human heartbeat.
External pacemakers already existed, the first having been created in 1952. However, the prospect of a miniature, implantable device sent waves through the medical community. On May 7, 1958, the first test was conducted at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., where the pacemaker was installed in a dog. Although the implant only lasted for approximately four hours, it was a boon to medical science. With a bit of tinkering, the device was upgraded to last several years. Even though later pacemakers would gradually become more advanced, Greatbatch’s design was used nearly unchanged throughout the early ‘60s.