5 Technological Advances That Started Out as Something Completely Different
They say necessity is the mother of invention, but often the most valuable inventions are happy accidents on the path of attempting to create something very different. Here are a few of the most well known examples, and their rise to fame.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied many rubber-producing countries in the Pacific Rim. Rubber was incredibly important for the war effort, since it was used to make rafts, tires, vehicle and aircraft parts, boots and gas masks. The search was on to create a viable synthetic rubber substitute. The project produced a gooey, bouncy substance that would stretch farther than normal rubber and would not go moldy; it could not replace normal rubber, and no practical purpose was found. In 1949, the stuff reached a toy store owner named Ruth Fallgatter, who decided to sell it in plastic eggs as a children’s toy. Today, silly putty sells millions of eggs annually.
In 1913, a small arms manufacturer hired metallurgist Harry Brearley to create a steel alloy that would resist erosion, in order to make gun barrels that wouldn’t wear out so quickly. Brearley’s alloy worked in a slightly different manner: instead of resisting erosion, this new steel had a remarkably ability to resist corrosion from chemicals such as lemon juice. Realizing that this metal would be perfect for silverware, he took it to a local cutler, who coined the term “stainless steel.” The rest is history.
In 1907, the electronics industry used shellac as insulation for electronic components. Since shellac was made from Southeast Asian beetles, importing the stuff cost the industry huge amounts of money. Chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland attempted to make a shellac substitute to save the industry money, and make himself a small fortune in the process. What he got instead was a moldable material that could take high temperatures without distorting. Refined from this “Bakelite,” plastic came into use in every industry imaginable.
In 1856, 18-year-old chemist William Perkin was working on an artificial quinine, a substance used at the time to treat malaria. What he got instead was a thick, murky mess. It initially looked like a failed experiment, but Perkin eventually noticed a beautiful color in this substance; it was, in fact, the first artificial dye. This discovery not only revolutionized the fashion industry, but also turned chemistry into a popular, money-making science.
On September 28, 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered that one of his experimental bacterial cultures had been left open, allowing a blue-green mold to contaminate the sample. It turned out that this mold, a species from the Penicillium genus, produced a substance that killed off a number of disease-causing bacteria. Refined and purified, penicillin became an incredibly potent antibiotic that was used to treat Allied forces during the Second World War. Not bad for what was originally a “failed” experiment.