Woman in velcro suit stuck to a bright yellow wall of a bouncy castle.

15 Accidental Discoveries That Changed the World

It has long been said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ but sometimes, the resulting invention isn’t the intended outcome.

From tasty treats to medical breakthroughs, we all benefit from these accidental discoveries that went on to change the world. 

Potato Chips

Bowl of home made potato chips served with mustard, rosemary, fleur de sel salt on stone background. Top view.
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George “Speck” Crum faced repeated complaints from his wealthy customers who weren’t pleased with his thickly sliced French-style potatoes. Not so much a discovery as a rather spiteful prank, Crum thin-sliced his potatoes and deep-fried them in response to their complaints. 

The crispy treats were a success, and today, potato chips are now a $7-billion-a-year industry.

The Slinky

Child playing orange and green tight, colorful flexible children's toy, fun plastic toy. Teen girl plays slinky.
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The iconic Slinky, renowned for its worm-like stair descent, originated from an unexpected discovery by naval engineer Richard James. 

While endeavoring to stabilize ship equipment with a spring, James inadvertently dropped a coiled metal and witnessed its mesmerizing movement. Richard shared his finding with his wife Betty, who envisioned its potential as a toy, leading to the creation of the beloved Slinky.

Post-it Notes

whiteboard post-it colored notes
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The Post-it Note‘s genesis traces back to 1968 when chemist Spencer Silver sought to create a potent adhesive for 3M. Despite producing a weak adhesive, Silver's microspheres intrigued colleague Arthur Fry.

Fry, inspired during church choir rehearsals where he sought to keep music sheets organized, envisioned using the adhesive for bookmarks. Collaborating, they perfected the glue, leading to the iconic Post-it note's commercialization in 1980. Today, it sells 50 billion units annually, an unexpected discovery—and success—from an initially perceived failure.

Microwave Oven 

Microwave oven; photo in kitchen environment.
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While working on radar equipment for Raytheon, American engineer Percy Spencer discovered microwave heating accidentally when a chocolate bar melted in his pocket due to radiation from the magnetron. 

Confirming his theory by popping corn kernels, Spencer swiftly developed the first microwave oven, introduced in 1946. This accidental discovery revolutionized cooking technology worldwide.

Penicillin 

The scientist isolated Penicillium expansum grow with Malt Extract Agar media in Petri dish use for cultivate yeast, black molds and fungi clinical test, in medical health laboratory analysis disease.
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During a 1928 vacation, British bacteriologist Alexander Fleming returned to find mold contaminating a petri dish in his lab. Surprisingly, the bacteria around the mold didn't grow. 

Fleming identified the mold as a penicillium fungus, leading to the discovery of the first potent antibiotic once its substance was purified. This accidental discovery revolutionized medicine, introducing penicillin as a life-saving treatment.

Play-Doh 

Child hands playing with colorful clay. Homemade plastiline. Plasticine. play dough. Girl molding modeling clay. Homemade clay.
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With the decline of charcoal and wood heating, soot removal products became obsolete by the 1950s. Seeking a new purpose for their non-toxic stain remover, American manufacturer Kutol embraced innovation. 

Inspired by a suggestion from a woman connected to the company, they repurposed the remover into a children's toy, birthing Play-Doh—an iconic product that continues to captivate young imaginations to this day.

Teflon 

Drops on Teflon coated pan on stove. Potential dangerous chemicals in cookware, non stick frying. PFAS or perfluoroalkyl.
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While seeking a coolant gas in DuPont's laboratory, Roy J. Plunkett accidentally discovered Teflon. In an experiment with tetrafluoroethylene, the gas solidified into a waxy white powder, exhibiting heat-resistant and non-stick qualities. Teflon found diverse applications, from atomic bombs to non-stick muffin trays.

Smoke Detectors

Smoke detector and interlinked fire alarm in action background with copy space
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In the 1930s, while attempting to create a sensor for detecting poison gas, Swiss physicist Walter Jaeger inadvertently stumbled upon a device that could register cigarette smoke. 

This chance discovery paved the way for the invention of the modern smoke detector, ultimately saving millions of lives and significantly reducing the risk of fatalities in fire-related incidents.

Velcro

Young woman in plastic dress in a bouncy castle imitates a fly on velcro wall. Inflatable attraction. Leisure activity.
Photo Credit: PeterVrabel Shutterstock

In 1941, Swiss engineer George De Mestral stumbled upon the idea for Velcro after a walk with his dog left them both covered in cocklebur plant barbs. 

Intrigued by the tiny hooks that snagged on clothing loops, he spent over a decade perfecting his hook-and-loop fabric, patented in 1955. Initially used by NASA, Velcro found widespread applications in various industries, evolving to include quieter versions developed by scientists in 2021.

Matches

Hand holding burning match stick on black background
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According to Charles Darwin, fire was humanity's most significant achievement post-language. Before the invention of friction matches, starting fires required laborious methods like flint and steel, wood friction, and chemical matches ignited by crushing a glass vial of sulfuric acid. 

British pharmacist John Walker's accidental discovery led to “Congreve” matches in 1827, but he didn't patent them, leading to others obscuring his role until posthumous acknowledgment.

Coca Cola

Rogersville, Tennessee/USA-6/5/2015 Several wooden cases of vintage bottles of Coca-Cola still full of soda on display on an old delivery truck outdoors
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In 1866, American pharmacist John Pemberton sought to create a non-opiate painkiller due to his Civil War morphine dependency. His first product, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, contained coca wine combined with the cocaine-containing coca plant and caffeine-rich kola nuts, but the temperance movement led him to develop an alcohol-free alternative. 

By accidentally mixing his concoction with carbonated water, he created Coca-Cola, marketed as a fountain drink. Pemberton’s business partner, Asa Griggs Candler, later transformed Coca-Cola into a thriving company after Pemberton's passing.

Super Glue

Hand man tan skin try to repair things with super glue
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Superglue, one of the most versatile household products, emerged from an accidental discovery by Dr. Harry Coover in 1942. 

While aiming to create clear plastic gun sights during WWII, Coover inadvertently produced the sticky substance but took another nine years to recognize its potent bonding properties. Marketed as “Eastman910” by Coover's employer, Eastman Kodak, superglue became available in 1958, proving to be an invaluable adhesive found in most homes across America.

The Pacemaker

Male Hand hold Pacemaker in front of camera with blue background
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In 1956, Wilson Greatbatch inadvertently invented the pacemaker while working on a heart rhythm recording device. Mistakenly grabbing the wrong resistor, he noticed the circuit emitted pulses resembling a heartbeat. 

Realizing the potential to stimulate heartbeats, he developed a smaller version, successfully implanted into a dog on May 7, 1958, marking the birth of the pacemaker and revolutionizing cardiac care.

Tea Bags

Putting tea bag into glass cup full of hot water
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Tea bags owe their existence to a mistake by American trader Thomas Sullivan in 1904. Sullivan sent his tea samples in small silk bags but failed to inform tasters that the tea was to first be removed from the bag. 

Unknowingly, recipients brewed tea while still in the bags. The surprise success of this accidental discovery led to further adaptations, eventually becoming today’s familiar tea bags.

Corn Flakes

Cornflake cereals in a bowl with milk on blue background, quick breakfast
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According to company history, in 1898, a batch of wheat-based cereal dough was inadvertently left out, leading to fermentation. Rolled into thin sheets and baked, the dough yielded large, crispy flakes. 

Will Kellogg, experimenting further, discovered that using corn instead of wheat resulted in even crunchier flakes. This accidental discovery paved the way for the creation of the iconic Corn Flakes cereal.

Author: Todd Rowley

Title: Copywriter

Expertise: social services, transportation, mental health

Todd Rowley is a copywriter and content writer. He’s an unabashed introvert, an only child with a curious spirit, and a lover of the Oxford comma. Originally educated as a Child and Youth Worker - spending more than 25 years in the field - he also dabbled in Religious Education and Communications Studies.