10 of History's Happiest Accidents

By: Dave Roos
Tourists visit the ruins of the Foro (Forum) at the archeological site in Pompei, Italy. Pompeii was buried in 79, discovered in the 1590s, and rediscovered in the 1700s.
Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images

If the big bang theory is correct — the scientific postulate, not the TV show — then the universe and all life as we know it is one big happy accident. Ditto for evolution and natural selection. You could even argue that every man, woman and child on Earth is the result of the happy accident of their parents meeting and falling in love. Kind of a stretch, if you ask us. For our list of history's happiest accidents, we chose 10 unintentional discoveries that changed the world for the better – whether it was discovering beer or popsicles or Viagra.

So before you beat yourself up for making mistakes, read how our list of stalwart scientists, explorers and nomadic goatherds turned potential fails into discoveries of a lifetime.


10: Penicillin

Dr. Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, at work in his laboratory in 1943.
Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

Before penicillin — the world's first mass-produced antibiotic drug — millions of people died each year from infected wounds and contagious bacterial diseases like scarlet fever. In World War II, bottles of penicillin saved countless lives in battlefield hospitals. Today, we still rely heavily on antibiotics to treat everything from common ear infections to potentially deadly bacterial outbreaks. Yes, mankind owes a tremendous debt to Dr. Alexander Fleming and his marvelous mistake.

Mistake? Absolutely. Scottish-born Dr. Fleming was in his lab in 1928 researching the flu virus when he noticed that one of his bacteria cultures was infected with a fungus. Most scientists would have tossed the spoiled petri dish in the trash, but not Fleming. Six years earlier, he had discovered the mild antibiotic properties of human tears when one of his own accidentally dripped into a bacterial sample [source: Krok]. Even mistakes, Fleming learned, had scientific value.


Upon closer inspection, Fleming noticed a clear ring around the fungus, indicating that it was toxic to the staphylococcus bacteria in the dish. Fleming carefully isolated the mold, which was of the genus Penicillium, and named his new wonder drug penicillin. The rest, as they say, is fungus history. Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1945 [source: Nobelprize.org].

9: Stainless Steel

Of his stainless steel invention, Brearley wrote: "The people in authority saw nothing of commercial value and still less of scientific interest in it ... I hope I will not be taken amiss if I say that workmen are often much wiser than their masters."

For centuries, rust was the greatest enemy of everything made out of steel, from massive ships to humble household cutlery. By all rights, Harry Brearley should have been a hero when he accidentally discovered stainless steel in 1913. Instead, his short-sighted employer dismissed his invention as a colossal waste of time.

Born into poverty, Brearley began apprenticing at the steelworks of Thomas Firth & Sons in Sheffield, England when he was 12. By his early 30s, he was an expert in industrial chemistry and a lead researcher in his employer's laboratory [source: Portland Works]. In 1912, his assignment was to develop a steel alloy — a custom blend of iron and other metals — that could withstand the superheated friction inside a rifle barrel. (The friction caused the gun barrel to get too big for the bullet.)The enemy here was erosion, not corrosion, but sometimes you find exactly what you aren't looking for.


As he experimented, Brearley noticed that one of his discarded alloys was still shiny and bright, while the rest had rusted. Searching his notes, he found the precise formula for stainless or "rustless" steel – 12 percent chromium formed a protective layer on steel when exposed to oxygen [source: Cyran and Gaylord].

Brearley begged his bosses to manufacture cutlery using the miraculous new alloy, but they nixed the idea as unprofitable [source: Portland Works]. A German firm beat Brearley to the patent, but he was eventually recognized as the original — if accidental — inventor of the most important metal of the 20th century.

8: Dead Sea Scrolls

Cave IV at Qumran in Israel is one of 11 caves where Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
Alistair Duncan/Darling Kindersley/Getty Images

A stray goat led to the accident discovery of one of the most important literary finds in history.

In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were trailing their flock through the scorched hills of Qumran near the Dead Sea when one man wandered off to chase down a stray. He discovered — and nearly fell into — a deep cave in the hillside. Dropping a stone into the blackness, he heard a pot shatter. Returning with his companion, they carefully lowered themselves into the cave and retrieved several sealed clay pots containing worn rolls of papyrus [source: Dead Sea Scrolls].


Not knowing what they had found, the men sold the blackened scrolls to antiquities dealers in Jerusalem for a few dollars apiece. Eventually, a biblical scholar and historian from the Hebrew University recognized the text on the scrolls as early copies of books from the Hebrew Bible.

When archaeologists and Bedouin explorers returned to the Qumran region, they discovered 10 more caves containing hundreds of full scrolls and fragments known collectively as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, include the earliest-known copies of every book in the Hebrew Bible -- some 1,000 years older than other known works. Other scrolls contained previously unknown books and religious manuscripts that shed new light on religious beliefs in the Second Temple Period [source: Dead Sea Scrolls].

The scrolls had been placed in the caves more than 2,000 years ago by a separatist Jewish group called the Essenes who lived and worshipped near the Dead Sea [source: White].

7: Viagra

The accidental discovery of Viagra's power to cure ED has made a lot of men very happy.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Until medical science invents a pill that makes men smarter, more attractive and filthy rich, Viagra will remain man's little blue best friend. Released to rave reviews in 1998, Viagra is still a huge moneymaker for drugmaker Pfizer, which reported more than $2 billion in sales in 2012 alone [source: Thomas].

Incredibly, Pfizer never set out to cure erectile dysfunction (ED). The invention of Viagra was a miraculous accident. Pfizer researchers were testing batches of a new angina (chest pain) medicine called UK-92480when subjects began reporting some unusual, er, stiffness. Further testing revealed that UK-92480 inhibited the production of an enzyme that undermined erections [source: British Pregnancy Advisory Service]. Renamed Viagra, the revolutionary ED pill became the fastest-selling drug of all time and made a lot of men a whole lot happier [source: Jay].


6: Velcro

George de Mestral got the idea for Velcro after some burrs stuck to his dog while out walking.
Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Thinkstock

In 1984, every kid in America had a pair of Reeboks with three sweet Velcro fasteners instead of lame laces. But decades before Velcro kicks became a full-blown fad, Swiss engineer George de Mestral took a fortuitous walk with his dog in the foothills of the Alps. Returning home, de Mestral noticed that his dog's fur was covered in prickly burrs.

Naturally curious, de Mestral examined the burrs under a microscope to see how nature pulled off this sticky trick. The culprits were tiny hooks on the surface of the burrs that attached to loops of fur on the dog's coat. De Mestral was an electrical engineer by trade, not a fashion designer, but he spent the next eight years researching and developing a clothing fastener based on his accidental discovery [source: Suddath].


De Mestral's first hook-and-loop prototype was made from cotton, then nylon. He named his product Velcro — a combination of "velvet" and "crochet" — and debuted the invention at a New York fashion show in 1959 [source: Cyran and Gaylord]. The fashion industry ignored Velcro until the high-tech fastener caught the attention of NASA engineers. Adhesive-backed strips of Velcro were perfect for securing tools and toothbrushes in zero gravity. Shoemaker Puma was the first to put Velcro on sneakers in 1968, and you can find it on a plethora of objects today [source: Cyran and Gaylord].

5: Popsicles

It seems appropriate that a popular kids' treat like Popsicles was invented by a boy who accidentally left a soda drink outside in the winter.
CLM Images/Moment/Thinkstock

The concept of a Popsicle — a frozen, sugary treat on a stick — seems so simple that a kid could have invented it. In fact, that's exactly what happened. Back in the winter of 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson left a glass of fruit-flavored powdered soda mixed with water out on his porch overnight with a stirring stick in it. The next morning, out popped the world's first Popsicle.

Epperson didn't start selling his accidental invention until 18 years later when he prepared his frozen treat for a fireman's ball in his hometown of San Francisco. The crowd loved it, and Epperson quit his day job as a real estate agent to patent and sell his world-famous Epsicles [source: Cyran and Gaylord]. Yes, that was the original name, until his children — who always called them "pop's 'sicles" — convinced him to change it [source: Popsicle]. Good work, kids.


4: X-ray Images

In this illustration from 1903, a doctor examines a patient's thorax using an X-ray tube and fluorescent screen. X-rays were discovered in 1895 and immediately used in medicine.
Universal Images Group Editorial/Getty Images

Over the course of one short year at the turn of the 20th century, one man's accidental discover revolutionized the practice of medicine.

In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was a little-known German physicist researching the behavior of cathode rays. In those days, no one knew anything about electrons or radiation. Roentgen was running high-voltage current through vacuum tubes to study the escaping cathode rays. He was surprised to find, though, when he covered the tube with black cardboard, that some invisible rays were still able to illuminate a screen coated with platinobarium 9 feet (2.7 meters) away [source: American Physical Society]. He called the unknown phenomena "X-rays."


In short time, Roentgen discovered that X-rays could also be captured on photographic plates. Using his wife's hand as a test subject — what a gentleman! — he was floored by the resulting image. X-rays passed easily through skin and muscle, but were blocked by bone and metal. For the first time, we could see inside the human body without raising a scalpel.

The medical community leaped on the invention, which Roentgen generously refused to patent. Within a year, the first diagnoses of broken bones and swallowed coins were being made by X-ray [source: APS]. Soon the mysterious rays were being used to treat cancerous tumors and skin diseases. The dangerous effects of X-ray exposure weren't known initially, but now doctors and technicians take special precautions to avoid the side effects of radiation [source: British Library]. Roentgen received the very first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901.

3: The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger (extreme left) and Keith Richards (second from left) are show in a 1963 photo of the Rolling Stones; the group was formed after Mick and Keith met by chance in a railway station.
Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Image

Life-saving medical breakthrough and frozen desserts aren't the only accidental discoveries that have made the world a happier place. How about the Rolling Stones? Rock historians claim that the world would never have enjoyed chart-topping hits like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Brown Sugar" or "Honky Tonk Woman" if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hadn't showed up for the same train at Dartford Station in Kent on the morning of Oct. 17, 1961 [source: BBC].

On his way to art college, Richards, electric guitar case over his shoulder, struck up a conversation on platform two with Jagger (on his way to the London School of Economics) about the blues records Jagger was carrying. Richards recognized him as they'd attended the same primary school, and they talked about music all through the one-hour commute into London. The connection was so strong that Jagger invited Richards to join his band, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys [source: BBC].


Jagger and Richards went on to form the Rolling Stones — originally the Rollin' Stones — with Brian Jones and Ian Stewart in 1962, less than a year after that fateful meeting. Their instant friendship became one of the most fruitful songwriting partnerships in rock history.

Today, Rolling Stones fans still make pilgrimages to Dartford Station's platform two and in 2013, council leaders announced that a plaque would be installed there to commemorate the meeting [source: BBC].

2: Pompeii

In the 1840s, Giuseppi Forelli, director of excavations, poured liquid plaster into the spaces left by the corpses buried in the ash bank at Pompeii. This allowed visitors to see what the victims really looked like and wore in their final moments.
(Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)

About 2.5 million people visit the ruins of Pompeii, Italy, each year, fascinated by the lives of a first century people so similar to our own. Excavators have uncovered streets, homes, public baths and detailed frescoes as well as jewelry and household objects from this city buried by a volcano, which preserved everything so well. But the entire site was discovered by accident – twice.

Back in 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering the city of Pompeii in ash and killing thousands of people [source: Stewart]. During the 1590s, an Italian architect named Domenico Fontana was in charge of building a canal to divert water from the Sarno River to a count's villa. His workers found some inscriptions relating to decurio pompeis, which Fontana took to refer to the Roman general Pompey rather than the city and so covered it up and kept on going [source: Ozgenel].


In 1710, a peasant came across some marble pieces while digging a well and sold them to a prince. The prince ordered excavations in the area for more artifacts. In 1738, the nearby town of Herculaneum – also a victim of Mount Vesuvius – was excavated by workers on behalf of King Charles III who had heard about the prince's diggings. But the rock above Herculaneum was hard, which made excavation difficult. In 1748, project leader Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre learned that artifacts had also been found near the Sarno canal and started digging in what we now know was ancient Pompeii. This city was buried at a shallower level than Herculaneum, which made excavation much easier [sources: Ozgenel, Turismo Pompeii].

Today, tourists visit both sites in order to see the priceless ruins and artifacts.

1: Beer

Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said, “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Good thinking, Ben.

The ancient discovery of fermentation was almost certainly a happy accident – perhaps one of the happiest of all. No one knows who exactly invented the first beer. Humans first began domesticating wild grains around 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia [source: Food Timeline]. The first breads were unleavened, meaning they were flat and tough. When grain gets wet, it becomes food for naturally occurring yeasts in the air, which produce alcohol as a byproduct.

At some point, ancient bakers must have noticed that this fermented grain rose into fluffier loaves of bread. A few adventurous/crazy folks also decided to take a sip of the stinky foam in the grain bin. And beer was born!

Some anthropologists and archaeologists even theorize that beer — not bread — was the original reason that humans took up agriculture [source: Kahn]. The social lubrication of low-proof alcohol may have softened the rigid social structures of ancient tribes and encouraged collaboration and innovation. Bread, some argue, was just a convenient byproduct of the quest to make tastier beer.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 of History's Happiest Accidents

Some of the tastiest food and beverage discoveries absolutely had to be accidents. Wine and beer are great examples. Who was the first guy — and it had to be a guy — to see a rotten pile of fruit soaking in days-old water and think, "I'm going to drink that!" Who was the first person to discover that if you let olives — inedible when freshly picked — cure in a salt brine for a few months, they're delicious? Probably the guy who found some old olives a seawater-soaked bag and though, "Why not?" Eating raw oysters had to start as a dare. And have you ever seen coffee or cocoa beans in the wild? How in the world did anyone imagine that those super bitter little beans could be converted into two of the world's most coveted confections? I know there must have been some happy — and plenty of unhappy — accidents along the way.

Related Articles

  • American Physical Society. "This Month in Physics History: Nov. 8, 1895: Roentgen's Discovery of X-Rays." November 2001. (May 16, 2014) http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200111/history.cfm
  • BBC News. "Anniversary of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Dartford Meeting." Oct. 17, 2011. (May 16, 2014) http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-kent-15333771
  • BBC News. "Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Plaque for Dartford Station." Dec. 14, 2013. (May 20, 2014) http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-kent-25384381
  • British Library. "Roentgen's Discovery of the X-ray." (May 16, 2014) http://www.bl.uk/learning/artimages/bodies/xray/roentgen.html
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