Inner tranquility takes work and focus. I’m always interested in finding new ways to overcome some of the challenges of living especially in an era when chaos and difficulties are never-ending. A fun way I’ve recently found (thank you Gary McMahon) is to read stories like the ones below to remind me of the positive things that happen by accident, meaning happiness and inspiration can occur anytime or anywhere.
Every item listed has been a part of my life in one way or another, but not in the incredulous way that they should have been. Maybe if I’d had the internet then and read how or why each item came to be, I would have paid more attention. I hope you enjoy discovering the stories behind these happy accidents.
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!
Chocolate Chip Cookies
The creation of the chocolate chip cookie is extremely relatable. Ruth Graves Wakefield was making her signature cookies, but she ran out of baker’s chocolate. She improvised and broke up a Nestle chocolate bar instead, hoping it would melt. Instead, she accidentally invented chocolate chip cookies. Courtesy of Reader’s Digest
Frank Epperson was 11 years old when he invented the Popsicle. After playing with a mixture of water and powdered soda mix, Epperson left his concoction outside. It froze overnight with his wooden stir stick lodged inside. He tasted it and knew he had something amazing on his hands. Epperson sold his “Epsicles” around the neighborhood and eventually at amusement parks. As an adult, he patented his product. But his kids couldn’t get used to the name, calling them “Pop’sicles.” Unfortunately, Epperson couldn’t afford to keep the business, sold it, and later said he never reaped the financial reward of his creation. Courtesy of Reader’s Digest
Plain lemonade dates back to the arrival of European immigrants in the 17th century. But pink lemonade has a more eclectic background. According to Smithsonian, the earliest mentions of pink lemonade also mention traveling circuses. One theory is that Henry E. Allot invented pink lemonade by accidentally dropping red-colored cinnamon candies into his mix sold at a circus. The other, gross theory is that Pete Conklin ran out of water for his lemonade stand—and used the dirty water that cleaned pink-colored tights as a stand-in.
In 1898, brothers W.K. Kellogg and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were working in a sanitarium in Michigan. They were trying to find healthy food to serve to their patients and when they accidentally let some boiled wheat go stale, they decided to see what they could do with the product. When they tried rolling the hardened dough it cracked into flakes, which the brothers then toasted. The patients liked the toasted flakes so much that the brothers started experimenting with other grains. Corn was an instant success. Thus corn flakes came into being, changing breakfast forever.
A scientist named Dr. Spencer Silver was working to develop an incredibly strong adhesive in 1968. By accident, he created the exact opposite — an incredibly weak adhesive. Silver relentlessly shared his invention with colleagues, but he couldn’t get traction to make it into a product. One of his colleagues, Arthur Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive on bookmarks. Fed up with little papers falling out of his hymnal at church, he determined that Silver’s invention was the solution. They worked on developing a bookmark and, after notes on them, decided to make the product a new way to communicate. After a successful market test in Idaho, 3M began selling the Post-it Note in 1979, and it rapidly grew in popularity.
George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, examined the pesky burrs that stuck to his clothes when he was walking his dog. He found that the burrs had miniscule hooks that allowed them to easily stick to fabric and fur. God’s design for the burrs inspired de Mestral to develop a fastening system that utilized the same concept. The resulting product came to be known as Velcro.
Dr. Alexander Fleming was a famous Scottish bacteriologist. Returning from vacation, Fleming found cultures of Staphylococcus aureus in the lab, which he meant to throw away before he left. To his surprise, some of the cultures died. Further investigation led Fleming to discover that a fungus, which had grown in the culture, destroyed bacteria. The type of fungus he found was a mold called Penicillium notatum. Howard Walter Florey, an Australian pathologist, and Sir Ernst Boris Chain. A German-born British biochemist, isolated and purified the penicillin for general clinical use. First calling it “mold juice,” Fleming rebranded it as “penicillin.” It was the first antibiotic discovered and is a treatment that has helped save countless lives.
The Microwave Oven
Percy LeBaron Spencer was working on magnetrons—high-powered vacuum tubes that generate short radio waves called microwaves—when he accidentally discovered microwave cooking. The engineer was doing his job as usual when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. Quickly Spencer realized that it was the magnetrons that were causing this phenomenon. By 1945, he had filed a patent for his metal cooking box powered by microwaves.
Back in 1942, Harry Coover was looking for materials he could use to build clear plastic gun sights for the war, but what he discovered instead was a chemical formulation that stuck to everything it touched. However, his discovery was rejected because researchers didn’t see a need for such a sticky formula, and it wasn’t until 1951 that the same formula was embraced and repurposed by Coover and fellow Eastman Kodak researcher Fred Joyner as “Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Compositions/Superglue,” as the patent reads.
Happy Accident – 2016, Plastic Eating Enzymes
In 2016, scientists in Japan discovered a bacteria that ate plastic. The organisms they found produced two enzymes that help them break down PET within weeks. Scientists called these enzymes PETase and MHETase, and by 2018, they had tweaked the PETase enzyme to speed up its abilities – by accident.
“The international team then tweaked the enzyme to see how it had evolved, but tests showed they had inadvertently made the molecule even better at breaking down the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for soft drink bottles,” The Guardian reported. In 2020, they turned it into a super enzyme that destroys plastic six times faster. With the world in a plastic pollution crisis, this accidental discovery couldn’t be more urgent for the future of the planet.