20 Accidental Discoveries And Inventions That We Still Use To This Day

Published 1 month ago

Every day, our lives are shaped by countless factors, but some of the most impactful changes to society often stem from new inventions or groundbreaking discoveries. And surprisingly, many of these game-changers were stumbled upon entirely by accident. Recently, members of the ‘Ask Reddit’ community delved into this topic, sparking discussions about serendipitous discoveries and inventions that have shaped our world. 

One user posed the question: “What discoveries or inventions owe their existence to sheer luck?” The responses covered a wide range of instances where chance played a pivotal role. If you’re intrigued by these tales of fortuitous happenstance, look no further. Scroll down to uncover the fascinating stories shared by Redditors in the list below.

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Image credits: Inside-Line


Image source: AutisticPenguin2, aboodi vesakaran / pexels (not the actual photo)

Most of the major ones honestly would have been discovered one way or another sooner or later, so I’m got to say something a little more obscure: There was once a dude who had the idea for a universal glue, one that would stick to anything – glass, wood, plastic, metal, any two solids that needed to be glued together. A lot of experimentation ensued; many ~~convincing~~ combinations of ingredients were tested, most subsequently rejected. Eventually, one substance was discovered. Would it stick to metal? Check. Glass? Check. Paper? Check. Plastic? Check. Wood? Check. Ceramics? Check. Skin even?? Still Check! And this glue was not only nigh universal, but the connection was instant, and the glue did not degrade by being exposed to air. And the connection it formed had the strength of… a wet tissue… It was sticky all right, but rather useless for holding anything much heavier than a piece of paper, and even that could be trivially pulled off by a young child. It was absolutely useless for anything that wanted to be secured. No amount of tampering would make this glue strong enough to be used for anything that wanted to stay glued. … One quick rebranding later and the Post-It note was born.


Image source: derberter, Claude Valette

Considering that Chauvet Cave was only discovered in 1994 but the paintings inside of it date back about 32 000 years, it’s easy to believe that such remarkable evidence of early human history could have remain buried for a lot longer, or until the entrance collapsed ever further and it was lost forever.



Image source: Griitt, plastelina.sk

During World War II, a chemical engineer named James Wright was working for the U.S. War Production Board. Wright was attempting to create an inexpensive substitute for synthetic rubber at the General Electric Lab. In 1943, while working on an experiment, he accidentally dropped boric acid into silicone oil, and the result was a stretchy substance that was bouncier than rubber. Peter Hodgson, a businessman, saw the putty and instantly knew it could be a hit. He re-named the creation “Silly Putty” and marketed it as a toy in 1950.


Image source: October1966, Castorly Stock / pexels (not the actual photo)

The current use for Viagra. It was originally meant for high blood pressure, then the men in the study noted a side effect.

IIRC, while effective at lowering blood pressure, it was in a weird place where it was better than a placebo, but worse than actual blood pressure medication. However, its still sometimes prescribed to help control blood pressure.


Image source: Roast_Chikkin, ROMAN ODINTSOV / pexels (not the actual photo)

Im surprised I haven’t seen this one yet, but LSD was discovered on accident. Or at least its psychedelic effects were. In 1938 a chemist named Albert Hoffman who worked for a pharmaceutical company was trying to synthesize a respiratory and circulatory stimulant from the fungus ergot. After syntonization, he set it aside for 5 years before he took another look at it and absorbed the LSD into his fingertips. He started feeling the effects as he rode his bike home that day. Essentially being the first person to trip balls on Acid.


Image source: winoforever_slurp_, Richard Ellis

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta is a 5000 year old Neolithic temple which has three levels of architecture carved underground in the limestone. It’s a world heritage archeological site, and an amazing place to visit. It had been buried for maybe a couple of thousand years, and was discovered by accident in the early 1900s by someone digging out foundations for a house. They finished building the house before getting around to notifying authorities what they had found.


Image source: Nodadbodhere, Унайзат Юшаева / pexels (not the actual photo)

Pyrex. Chemists and engineers at Corning Glass Works had developed the material, a strong and heat-resistant glass, for use in railroad lanterns and battery jars. Looking for additional uses for the material, one Corning R&D employee brought a sawed-off battery jar home. Presumably after cleaning it his wife used it to bake a cake, and noticed and shared that the cake baked much more evenly and quickly than traditional metal or ceramic pans, with the added bonus of being able to check on the progress of the bake through the clear glass, and here we are.


Image source: RemoteWasabi4, Towfiqu barbhuiya / pexels (not the actual photo)

There’s typically a lot of luck in artificial-sweetener discovery. Aspartame was part of anti-ulcer research, until someone licked his finger and found it was sweet. And sucralose was found to be sweet when a foreign student misread the instruction to “test” it.


Image source: throw1away9932s, Polina Tankilevitch / pexels (not the actual photo)

Reverse transcriptase which led to the development of hiv treatment was discovered by pure luck and the casual experimentation of a medical doctor and his friend in their basement lab because they enjoyed scientific research. The guy then later helped develop the first hep c vaccine. Really cool story though .


Image source: saluksic, cottonbro studio / pexels (not the actual photo)

Glass is a very difficult material to make, and it’s thought that the ancients only discovered it once (somewhere in the Middle East), and it spread to other places from there (unlike writing and agriculture which seem to have developed independently in several places). The difficulty in glass is down to the temperatures required and finding an appropriate source of alkali that isn’t in a salt form. It’s some kind of astonishing coincidence that anyone put such random rare minerals together in an appropriate crucible and fired it to very high temperatures.

Glasses do exist in nature (lightning strikes on sand – a red herring since anyone trying to heat up sand to a similar temperature would have met with failure up until a hundred years ago or so; and obsidian for example), so some material scientist would have figured them out at some point in the Industrial Revolution or so.

But another twist we have in our timeline is glass blowing. This was invented by the Romans about a thousand years after glass production began. It’s a very unintuitive and creative way to shape glass, and requires an artistic genius to invent. Had glass only become an industrial material a hundred to so years ago, it’s almost certain that the blowing techniques that give us art and things like lightbulbs would be elusive still.

The final stepping stone is highly specialized glass such as the [dichronic](https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dichroic_glass) properties of the [Lycurgus cup](https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycurgus_Cup), which is so rare as to be unique. The color of this glass depends on whether light is reflected off its surface or shining through it, appearing either green or red respectively. Created in 400 AD, recreations of this effect are exceptionally rare today and have never been mass produced. The effect is caused by insoluble gold and silver trace impurities in the glass ripening into nanoparticles of precise size and composition by heat treatment of the glass. Almost nothing in the world has these properties. Researchers are able to make one-off batches of this kind of glass, and even embed similar particles in [3D printed plastic](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6404512/), but carving a cup in glass is not yet automated and represents about two years of a skilled artisan’s time. In effect, manufacturing a glass of this color-effect and this carving is an invention that hasn’t quite occurred yet. .


Image source: Flashy_Attitude_1703, Mike Jones / pexels (not the actual photo)

The one I heard in chemistry class was that this chemist put some chemicals in a flask and placed a mechanical stirrer in it to stir overnight. The next morning the stirrer had stopped stirring and he found the chemicals in the flask was solid and thus ultrahard polycarbonate polymer was created.

OK, since my post is rather popular I will also add that the guy who found that the stirrer was stuck in the solid polycarbonate polymer in the morning broke the glass off the flask off then went around the lab holding the stirrer handle with the polycarbonate polymer mass on it and banged on the tables around the lab saying look what I discovered.


Image source: trashcount420, Elizabeth Makes Photos / pexels (not the actual photo)

Color changing glass. Accidentally discovered in the 90’s by a bowl maker and was given free to the world. Dude could’ve been immensely wealthy being the only person who knew how to make a glass bowl change colors.


Image source: MemeDream13, john cox / pexels (not the actual photo)

Bird migration. Was discovered when a large bird was found in the north with a projectile from the south stuck in it (neck i think). Before this, it was thought the birds hibernated at the bottom of water bodies or flew to the moon or other dumb s**t.


Image source: quiidge, cottonbro studio / pexels (not the actual photo)

It’s unlikely it would have remained undiscovered forever, but X-rays for medical imaging!

The first x-ray image was an accidental exposure of a photographic plate the scientist’s wife was holding – they didn’t realise the rays would interact with it like visible light, and when they developed it her bones and wedding ring were visible.

(This may have been the first clue they needed some safety precautions, too, but honestly all the early research into ionising radiation is terrifying. They didn’t know what they were dealing with. The Curie’s lab/offices are still tightly controlled due to all the radium and polonium contamination, for example.).


Image source: Winter-Appearance-14, Gerd Altmann / pexels (not the actual photo)

Rubber vulcanization. Charles Goodyear has searched for years how to make a use of rubber but the actual discovery of the vulcanization came out of luck after spilling a mixture on a hot stove.


Image source: P1zzaman, Markus Winkler / pexels (not the actual photo)

I’m not sure if this counts, but Tetsuhiro Shikiyama (founder of Nippura, the company that makes thick acrylic glass for aquariums) invented the tech that glues/fuses multiple layers of clear acrylic when he dropped a udon noodle he was eating on some acrylic and had a hard time picking it up because it stuck.


Image source: Intelligent_Pay_6958, Karolina Grabowska / pexels (not the actual photo)

Penicillin gotta be one of them. Guy had his to now be “the cure” left open while he went on a vacation and once he came back, he noticed that the mold was suppressing the growth of bacteria.

We probs wouldn’t be alive if he didn’t go on that vacation and leave the dish open.


Image source: Phreakiture, Pixabay / pexels (not the actual photo)

Here’s one that most people won’t know : an audio effect called Gated Reverb. It was an accidental discovery made by Phil Collins and Hugh Padgam while they were working on Peter Gabriel’s third self titled album in 1980. The effect thickens up the sound of the drums considerably by applying, in order, a reverb, a gate and a compressor. It was the result of the studio having a natural reverb, and the intercom between the studio and control room having a gate and compressor on it to make it more usable.  While the effect was used on Gabriel’s album, it became truly known a year later, when Collins released his first solo album, *Face Value,* which opens with *In The Air Tonight.*  The effect is what makes the crescendo of that song so stunning, in contrast to the comparatively dull sound of a Roland CR-78 that was the sole percussion in the track up to that point. .


Image source: dancingbanana123, Niels Henrik Abel

Oh I study math history, I can share some fun ones! Niels Abel is famous for a few things in mathematics, but the easiest one to explain is that he proved there does not exist a general formula to find the solutions to a polynomials where the highest exponent is 5 (i.e. there’s no general formula to find all the solutions to something like x^(5) + x + 1 = 0). There’s the quadratic formula for when your highest exponent is 2, there’s another formula for when your highest exponent is 3, and another for 4, but Abel proved it’s *impossible* to find one when the highest exponent is 5 or higher. It basically depends on the idea that some algebraic numbers cannot be simply represented with +, -, *, /, or exponents.

Now Abel proved this when he was 21, but Abel grew up in poverty and had no way of actually sharing this solution with others. In fact, the only reason he was able to attend college was because 3 professors offered to cover the cost because they recognized his talent. He could only afford to print 6 pages of his proof, so he had to heavily abbreviate everything, cut large chunks of his proof, *and* wrote it all in shaky French (since Norwegian isn’t a common language and he wanted to share it with other mathematicians in Europe). He ends up mailing a few copies of this proof to a few mathematicians, but all of them dismiss it because it’d be an outlandish claim and nobody wanted to parse this difficult-to-read proof. In fact, Abel’s letter was found unopened on Gauss’s desk after Gauss died. So despite proving this major result, nobody knew about it except for Abel and the small group of mathematicians around him in Norway.

The professors at his university petitioned the government to help fund his travel around Europe to learn more math and share his work and surprisingly, the government decided to fund him. While in France, he stumbled across this guy named Crelle. Abel struck up a conversation with Crelle about math and they both started talking about unsolved problems. Crelle mentioned this problem about polynomials and Abel excited mentions that he solved that problem and showed him his proof. Crelle obviously couldn’t make sense of Abel’s proof, but he was so captivated by his conversation with Abel, he offered to print Abel’s *full* proof. This print would later turn out to be the first publication by *Crelle’s Journal*, one of the most influential journals in mathematics in all of European history. With this, people began to finally learn about Abel’s proof and he began to gain some notoriety.

Unfortunately, this would not end well for Abel. Abel submits another major result (Abel’s theorem) to this major publication in Paris, where a committee is formed to review the submission. Unfortunately, one of the reviewers, Cauchy, just straight up loses the paper. Abel, running out of funding for his travels, is forced to return home with no success on this publication. He also loses out on a major job opportunity that could’ve taken him out of poverty, all because he was deemed too young and his childhood mentor and friend, Holmboe, gets the job instead. He ends up dying of TB just a few years later at the age of 26.

Afterwards, another mathematician, Jacobi, is reading some of Abel’s work and notices how great his work is. When he learns Cauchy lost Abel’s paper, he pressures Cauchy to find this paper. Cauchy sends the paper off to be published posthumously, but it is lost at the printing press. It wouldn’t be found for over 100 years later, in a whole other country somehow. Thankfully though, Holmboe published Abel’s work separated to help share all of Abel’s results and not let others forget him.

Abel’s life is full of misfortune, but also great friends trying their hardest to share their friend’s greatness. While Abel doesn’t end up succeeding during his life, I can’t help but enjoy seeing how much all of his friends cared about him, and his own ability to make friends randomly with so many people. Abel today is commonly mentioned in any undergrad group theory course because of how influential his work is on modern algebra. Without the help of people like Crelle, Holmboe, and Jacobi, we wouldn’t be recognizing this work today.


Image source: ZubLor, cottonbro studio / pexels (not the actual photo)

Champagne. At least according to Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock – “monks thought they were making white wine. Somehow the bottle carbonated. Voila**, champagne”.

Shanilou Perera

Shanilou has always loved reading and learning about the world we live in. While she enjoys fictional books and stories just as much, since childhood she was especially fascinated by encyclopaedias and strangely enough, self-help books. As a kid, she spent most of her time consuming as much knowledge as she could get her hands on and could always be found at the library. Now, she still enjoys finding out about all the amazing things that surround us in our day-to-day lives and is blessed to be able to write about them to share with the whole world as a profession.

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accidental discovery, accidental invention, discoveries, dumb luck, inventions, pure luck
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