Serendipity Spurs Discovery

Jan. 5, 2017

A lot of things we benefit from today were discovered by accident. In the mid-1900s Velcro inventor Georges de Mestral found burrs clinging to his pants and also to his dog's fur. On closer inspection, he found that the burr's hooks would cling to anything loop-shaped. After noodling around in the lab, he was able to recreate the natural fastener and moms of toddlers rejoiced as they purchased Velcro shoes. And in 1839 Charles Goodyear, after years of trial and error trying to make rubber more durable, accidentally dropped his rubber concoction on a hot stove. What he discovered was a charred leather-like substance with an elastic rim. Rubber was now weatherproof.

So goes the story for many chemists. Unfortunately, some inventions had casualties. Take for example nitroglycerin. Alfred Nobel’s brother died at a nitroglycerin factory run by the Nobel family. Alfred made it his life’s work to make it safer. One day he dropped nitroglycerin and instead of blowing up, it was absorbed by the sawdust it fell on. He discovered that the sawdust contained diatomaceous earth, which proved to be a stabilizer for nitroglycerin. This allows much safer transport and handling than nitroglycerin in its raw form. He patented this mixture as dynamite in 1867. Not wanting his invention to be used for evil, he created awards in his will to honor science, medicine, literature and peace. He directed that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind."

A recent Reactions video from The American Chemical Society highlights other accidental discoveries. Enjoy!

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She’s always trying to think of the next big invention and hopes to some day be on Shark Tank. It’s doubtful her discovery will be as noble as Nobel’s. You can email her at [email protected].

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