7 Products Invented by Accident

Silly Putty

Silly putty was invented by accident when someone in Second World War manufacturing company Binney & Smith Inc. dropped boric acid into silicon oil while attempting to manufacture a synthetic rubber substitute, which the Government needed.  The company found that the resulting polymer formed a true Newtonian material, where its shear strain was directly proportional to its shear stress – pull it fast and it snaps as a brittle material, but pull it slowly and it extends as a plastic material.  Never people to miss an opportunity, the company quickly marketed their invention after the war as a toy.  

Silly Putty-002

Silly Putty-001

Beloved of small boys and fed to successions of hamsters, silly putty also found its way into space as a compound for securing small tools in zero gravity environments where it doesn’t ‘out-gas’ like other formable materials.

Slinky

Slinky

Sounding like it’s slipped into something more comfortable, the slinky toy was stumbled upon by naval engineer Richard James while he was trying to develop a spring that would support and stabilize sensitive equipment on ships in 1943.  When one of the springs accidentally fell off a shelf, it continued moving, and James got the idea for a toy.   The device works by converting all of its potential energy in kinetic energy, which is followed by a final toppling under momentum from the previous topple, and aided by gravity, that makes it all happen again and again until you run out of stairs, or enthusiasm.  He asked his wife Betty to come up with the name and she suggested Slinky for some reason.

Mr. James launched the toy in 1945 where American youth plainly felt it filled a hole in their needs and he sold over 400 of them in the first ninety minutes.   Today, Slinky’s worldwide sales have passed 250 million units.

Teflon 

Teflon-001

CFC’s have always been bad, but not always seen as such, which was not good news for the environment. In the 1930’s research into CFC’s was very big business, as they had been identified as potential refrigerants, and almost everyone bar Eskimo’s wanted their stuff cold.  While looking through his theory notes, a young DuPont chemist called Roy Plunkett reasoned that if he could get a compound called tetrafluoroethylene to react with hydrochloric acid, he might produce the refrigerant he was after.   In experimentation the acid polymerised the compound leading to the formation of polyterafluoroethylene, or PTFE.  Not sure of what he had produced but certain that it wasn’t a refrigerant, Mr Plunkett handed the flakes over to other Du Pont chemists for analysis, and the low friction material was born.   Experimentation began and it was soon being used to coat frying pans and saucepans under the trade name of Teflon.

Few Teflon Products

Few Teflon Products

PTFE is hydrophobic meaning that water-based substances cannot wet its surface, and it has a coefficient of friction so low that not even gecko’s can stick to it!  There is much made from the incorrect fact that PTFE is some “space chemical” developed by NASA; it isn’t and wasn’t.

LSD as a drug 

LSD as a drug-002

Lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938 as he investigated the properties of ergotamine, itself derived from a grain fungus found on rye. Having separated the compound he broke the golden rule in a lab never to taste or sniff anything in a test tube, and unintentionally swallowed a small amount of LSD. He spent the next few hours experiencing the first acid trip in history and was never the same again.

Albert Hofmann

Albert Hofmann

The delusional properties of LSD became beloved of 1960’s hippies who were certain it took them to other dimensions, which proves how wrong people can be, and placed it firmly in the annuls of social culture.  LSD has been trialed as a pain-killer and was found to be as effective as many opiates, however the trial concluded that the it didn’t so much relieve pain as relive the anxiety of pain, which then worked psychologically to remove actual pain.  Following this trial, LSD is still sometimes administered to the elderly in Switzerland to alleviate end-of-life anxiety.

Penicillin

Penicillin

You’ve been waiting for this one, haven’t you?   Almost everyone is aware of the story of Alexander Fleming noticing a petri-dish of staphylococcus that he had left out becoming contaminated with a blue-green mould which seemed to inhibit the bacteria’s growth.  Upon finding this, Fleming investigated and grew a pure culture which he found suppressed the growth of the bacteria through the action of lysing, where the cell walls of the bacteria fracture and shred as the cell tries to grow.

Penicillin was found to be particularly effective against maladies such as syphilis, and infections caused by staphylococci and streptococci, though many bacterial strains are now resistant to Penicillin.

Nylon

Few Nylon Products

Few Nylon Products

At the onset of the Second World War, Asian silk used in parachutes was in danger of becoming a rare commodity, and the US Government charged several pharmaceutical companies with finding a replacement or producing synthetic silk.  In carrying out this work, researchers at DuPont put lots of effort in but only succeeded in producing a liquid polymer that was chemically similar to silk but, as a liquid, wholly unsuited to arresting decent.  They turned their attention to another polymer group called polyesters.

Boredom set in quickly and in horseplay not normally associated with laboratories (tut tut) young researchers found that they could draw long lengths of polyester out of blobs of the resin and had a whale of a time running up and down corridors seeing who could produce to longest length.  In no doubt what was a forehead-slapping moment, one of the researchers concluded that in applying a stress they were reorienting the long-chain molecules and creating a strong, solid, material from the gloopy, viscous resin.

Nylon-001

It was found that the threads could indeed be woven to make parachutes and Nylon production took off.  It became one of the most used polymers and has found its way into tires, sausage skins (euggghhhh), and firearms, with the Glock 17 being mostly constructed from Engineering Grade Nylon.

As an interesting footnote, a similar reaction occurs with immiscible liquids ethylene Glycol and terephthalic acid, with the resulting long-chain polymer Polyethylenterephthalate (PET or “Tyrelene”) being pulled out as a continuous thread from the interface.

Telephone

Telephone-001

The telephone is a truly great invention that has advanced to the illogical conclusion where, through the advent of text messaging, it allows hordes of teenagers to not have proper conversations.

The telephone had its origins in the search for another device that was intended to send multiple telegrams simultaneously, which was perceived as the next step in telegram communications in the late 19th century.  One of the leading researchers in the field was Alexander Graham Bell.

Telephone-002

Bell took to following the work of German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz, who invented the Helmholtz Resonator to identify frequencies and pitches in sound, and showed how they could mimic human voice sounds.  Deciphering Helmholtz’ work in German – a language that he didn’t speak himself (well, d’uh) – Bell misconstrued what the paper actually said and believed that Helmholtz was suggesting that multiple signals could be sent at the same time.

Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson were experimenting with similar devices in different room, when Bell spilled some polish and exclaimed “Come here Watson, I want you”, which became the first telephone conversation.  Realizing that they could send speech by what amounted to the harmonic telegraph principle, they inadvertently invented the telephone.

As a footnote, the word telephone Greek for “Far Sound”.