The Successful Mistakes

It is said that good inventions are often born out of need, great ones are accidental. Here are a few cases of ‘successful’ mistakes that are worth millions of dollars. Readers, these are different from zillion other accidental inventions where the inventors were just favoured by serendipity. This is all about making mistakes.


Saccharin, the sweetener, was discovered because chemist Constantin Fahlberg didn’t wash his hands after a day at the office.
In 1879 he was trying to come up with new and interesting uses for coal tar. After a productive day at office, he went home and something strange happened. He noticed the rolls he was eating tasted particularly sweet. He asked his wife if she had done anything interesting to the rolls, but she hadn’t. They tasted normal to her. Fahlberg realized the taste must have come from his hands — which he hadn’t washed.

The next day he went back to the lab and started tasting his work until he found the sweet spot.


The brilliant yet notoriously absent-minded biologist Sir Alexander Fleming was researching a strain of bacteria called staphylococci. Fleming didn’t clean up his workstation before going on a vacation one day in 1928. Returning to lab after a week, Fleming noticed a strange fungus had grown on some of his unwashed glass culture dishes. Even stranger was that the staphylococcus bacteria seemed unable to grow in the area surrounding the fungal mould. Further research by several other scientists changed the way doctors treated bacterial infections forever.

The Pacemaker

American engineer Wilson Greatbatch was working on designing a circuit that would record heart rhythms. He accidentally picked up the wrong resistor and pulled out a 1-megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000-ohm from the resistor box. The circuit pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds and then stopped for one second. Then it repeated. Greatbatch recognized the rhythm and realized that this circuit was just the thing to regulate irregular heartbeats and the outcome was the world’s first implantable cardiac pacemaker.


Teflon was invented in 1938 by a DuPont research chemist named Roy Plunkett. One day he was experimenting with a coolant called tetrafluoroethylene to establish its suitability for refrigeration purposes. He cooled TFE gas, pressured it in cylinders so that it could be stored until he was ready to use. But the pressurised cylinder failed to discharge properly when the valve was opened. Dismissing all safety rules he cut it open to see what had happened. Instead of a violent explosion, he found that the gas had solidified inside the cylinder to form a strangely slippery and inert white powder which had an extremely high melting point.


In 1982, some researchers at the US Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Japan cracked a fish jar. When they patched it together with superglue (cyano-acrylate), they noticed the finger-prints on the glass standing out of relief. The fumes from the glue had condensed on oils in the prints, rendering them highly visible. Note that the science of fingerprinting began with the work of Francis Galton in the nineteenth century.

X – Ray

Professor Wilhelm von Roentgen, teacher of physics at Wurzburg, Germany, and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, was experimenting with cathode rays. Called to lunch during one of his experiments, he left the tube on his desk and forgot to turn off the electricity. That same day he happened to take some photographs. When he developed them, he was startled to see, in the center of one picture, the silhouette of a key. After a search, he found his office key inside of a book on his desk, which he used as a bookmark. The great mind concluded that the tube must have given off rays of some sort that had penetrated the book and plate-holder to affect the photographic plate and leave the picture of the key.

Microwave Oven

In 1945 Percy Lebaron Spencer, an American engineer and inventor, was busy working on manufacturing magnetrons, the devices used to produce the microwave radio signals that were integral to early radar use. Suddenly he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Spencer disregarded the simple idea that his body heat had melted the chocolate in favor of the less logical and therefore more scientific conclusion that invisible rays of radiation had “cooked it” somehow. Later he experimented with popcorn kernels and eventually an egg which exploded. The conse-quence was the microwave oven.
The British Constitution says the King can do no wrong. Why??? Are mistakes always unwelcomed? Are mistakes valueless?

Readers, I am not encouraging you to start making mistakes from now onwards. But be sure, when that next accident happens to you, you are alert enough to make the best out of it!


To cite this article, please use following information:

(use the given format or any standard citation format)

Rahman, M.M., The Successful Mistakes, ChE Thoughts 1 (1), 35-36, 2010.


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