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The Power of Accidental Discoveries 174

schmiddy writes "An article from Wired mentions the surprising number of discoveries that have been made entirely by accident. In an older article, The Discovery Channel's site points out a different subset of inventions that happened by accident. A much older article from PBS goes into more depth on the subject of accidental discoveries, and gives a great quote from physicist Joseph Henry: 'The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.'"
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The Power of Accidental Discoveries

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  • Inkjet printers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @02:50AM (#15554025)
    I remember hearing about how Canon discovered inkjet technology when a lab worker accidentally touched an ink-filled syringe with a soldering iron. This idea then became the basis for their bubblejet technology, albeit on a much smaller scale. I've heard this a few times now and have no idea whether it's myth or a true story.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @02:56AM (#15554041)

    The accidental discovery of the potato chip was important only in that ultimately, when people searched for a way to improve the thin and lackluster potato chip of the masses, the miracle of Pringles was born. I don't know how people could just eat those greasy things that come in a bag for several decades.

    One item of trivia that might amuse fans of science fiction is that the machine responsible for Pringles was invented by Gene Wolfe, author of the masterpiece tetralogy The Book of the New Sun [] and formerly a professional engineer.

  • by plasmacutter ( 901737 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @02:57AM (#15554045)
    there is a big difference between accidental and intentionally sought discovery though.

    for instance.. when the periodic table was first created, it was surmised there were many elements which were to be discovered.. loe and behold they were eventually, but a lot of the later ones had to be lab created. Had the periodic table not been produced we might not have been interested in doing so.

    What I don't get is why half the polymers we use dont end up on that list linked in but viagra does, oh wait yes i do ; ).. but i mean several polymers (the names of which i can't recall off the top of my head) were discovered as a biproduct of petrol purification experiments.
  • Asimov (Score:2, Interesting)

    by qurk ( 87195 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @02:58AM (#15554047)
    Asimov has a great essay on the topic of accidental discoveries, at least one. I'll try to find which of his books contained it.
  • janting (Score:2, Interesting)

    by nfarrell ( 127850 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @03:16AM (#15554076)
    The first unintended discovery (can any true discovery truly be intentional?) that came to mind was that of jaunting [], named after its creator.

    My description would pale in comparison to the original, so I won't try. Suffice to say, read this book, be amazed, then look when it was written and be doubly amazed.
  • by djl4570 ( 801529 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @03:35AM (#15554105) Journal
    Fundamental discoveries are made by accident. One of the best examples of this was Michaelson and Morley's interferometer that they used to measure the speed of light in different directions. A well designed experiment that very accurately measured the speed of light. The experiment objective was to determine the direction through which earth was passing though the "ether", at the time a theoretical media that supported the wave propagation of light. As such the experiment failed because the speed of light was the same regardless of the orientation of the interferometer. A few years later Einstein re-interpreted the results and declared that there was no ether and that the speed of light was a constant. There was nothing wrong with the original experiment, just the interpretation of the result. It was a discovery that changed our understanding of the universe. Years ago I opened a fortune cookie that said "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." The universe was telling me to look for a learning opportunities whenever I didn't get an expected result.
  • by itsthebin ( 725864 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @06:52AM (#15554344) Homepage
    from Wikipedia

    [i]is a method for the separation of mixtures. Flotation is a separation technique used widely in the minerals industry, for paper, de-inking, and water treatment amongst others. It can also be used in the food and coal industries. The technique relies upon differences in the surface properties of different particles to separate them. The particles that are to be floated are rendered hydrophobic by the addition of the appropriate chemicals. Air is then bubbled through the mixture and the desired particles become attached to the small air bubbles and move to the surface where they accumulate as a froth and are collected, or if the non-desired particles float to the surface they are collected and discarded. The flotation process was developed on a commercial scale early in the 20th century at Broken Hill in Australia and is widely used for processing of sulphide minerals (copper, lead, zinc, nickel, cobalt etc...).[/i]

    The anecdotal story I heard was the chief metalurgists wife was washing his work clothes and commented on the shiny qualities of the bubbles.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 17, 2006 @08:06AM (#15554491)

    A breakthrough in artificial intelligence [] occurred on 7 June 2006 as a result of tweaking some parameters in open-source AI software.

  • I seems that one way to encourage new discoveries is to learn how to cultivate or induce a state of mind or being that will make oneself more receptive to tangential thinking - by that I mean that moment where one takes a step back and "the light comes on" about something completely unrelated to the current course of research or study. This, IMHO, would be be open-mindedness, or egolessness. Too bad a massive ego is a prerequisite for tenured college professorship - I guess they won't be teaching how to do it.

    In an alternate train of thought, it's too bad Charles Robert Richet, the French physiologist mentioned in the article [], couldn't have experimented on politicians instead of dogs.... Maybe a precident could have been set that

  • by old_fortran ( 80585 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @11:21AM (#15555052)
    For the general reference, see this Wiki article: []

    But I also have a personal recollection. When in University, I was an engineering student at a major US "ivy league" school. Naturally we had people from industry who would visit on occasion and discuss the ways in which engineering were used in businesses (so as to appear attractive to as as potential career choices for employment). One such presentation was in 1974 or 1975 on Pringles from a guy from Procter & Gamble (don't think it was the inventor, but someone related to the product).

    What was interesting was his perspective on the "why" of Pringles. The key points as I remember them are:

    - Pringles could be made from "dehydrated cooked potatoes" as the Wiki article mentions. Given that dehydrated potatoes were a _big thing_ in the US in the '60s, there would be an advantage to P&G to do this. (This was the case at least where I lived - part of the whole "prepared foods" marketing effort to get us Boomer children to eat things developed for feeding troops in WWII in many cases / in other words, surplus production capacity - but this my opinion, not what was discussed).

    - Pringles needed a differentiator, given this somewhat artifical origin; I expect P&G would understand that Frito-Lays would be able to attack their new product as "unnatural" in some way otherwise (the 70's were a time of some backlash against big business food production, due to communes, big-business backlash, and the early "whole foods" movement - aqain my opinion). The answer was the Pringles can, which would permit production of a uniform size chip and would protect them from breakage, while being much more compact to ship, store, and position on shelves (all quite valuable to both P&G and their customers).

    My point here was that Procter & Gamble needed to be able to come up with some "new" angle on the potato chip to gain traction in a competitive marketplace for a new product offering. By combining manufacturing (using pre-processed dehydrated potatoes, so no "green edges", no losses of raw materials due to spoilage, and the ability to buy source material from multiple suppliers as well as share production with manufacturing for dehydrated mashed potatoes / a larger product line at that time) with packaging (uniform chip size in a hardened container, at least as compared with chip bags from Lays and Wise, the main competitors in my area) P&G could offer a chip that maintained its shape and volume in the packaging, while being more resistent to attack by vermin as well as more compact to ship (I still wonder what the cost advantage is to ship an equivalent weight in Pringles compared with regular chips) as well as display. Notice how much less space Pringles take up in a grocery store, compared with Lays (even if there are now many more choices than the "original" flavor and can size)?

    This must have been a very successful strategy for P&G, given both the longevity and the continued market presence of Pringles. I bought a can on the airline flight I took home just this past Thursday - the short cans are great for tight spaces where long shelf-life would be valued, such as in airplane food carts or hotel minibars (often see only Pringles on both).

    All in all, it was a good lesson to a young engineering student - of both the good and bad aspects of business uses of science and engineering. Since many of the accidential "discoveries" or "products" come from similar confluences of science/engineering/manufacturing/marketing (can you say "Viagra"?), I thought this would be a useful addition to this thread.

  • Actually... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cr0sh ( 43134 ) on Saturday June 17, 2006 @08:23PM (#15556744) Homepage
    Edison was a determined genius and a good administrator. His inventions (film, audio, electricity, light bulbs - just 3 out of 1200) are still a STAPLE in western society.

    Edison was a shrewd businessman and marketer, as well. He still has a lot of people fooled, including you, apparently.

    Film? I assume by this you mean "motion pictures", but Edison was not the "inventor" of such technology, he merely managed to package it up into a nice assembly. Many, many people contributed toward the progress of motion picture technology - Edison merely stood on all of these men's shoulders and set up an "easy to use" system.

    Audio? If you mean the phonograph, then I will give you this one - such a device was fairly unique to come out of Menlo Park, though I bet if you researched it carefully, you will still find precedents in the technology. Even so, I would be more inclined to give this to him than other things he "invented". One thing Edison completely missed was the invention of what would later become known as the "triode" - the vacuum tube, to be precise. Edison noticed the electrons being "given off" by the heated filament of one of his light bulbs, but chalked it up as a curiosity of no importance. It would be years later that DeForrest would recognize the usefulness of this, which was termed "the Edison Effect", to develop the vacuum tube, around which audio amplifiers, useful radio, electronic computers, radar, and a whole host of other devices could be developed.

    Finally, electricity and light bulbs? You have to be kidding me. Yes, Edison perfected the incandescent electric bulb, but many other inventors were working on similar devices - Edison merely had the forethought to try every possible material he could think of in a "brute force" attempt to build a better electric lamp. His lamp was the "best of breed", but it wasn't unique. This isn't unexpected, though, as many inventions throughout history have been "simultaneously" discovered and patent disputes abounded. It seems like for certain inventions at certain points in time, history shows that multiple people hit upon success, and whoever gets to the patent office first, wins.

    However, with electricity, you are really far off the mark. Today's modern electricity generation and distribution system (not to mention tons of other modern devices like flourescent bulbs, microwave ovens, plasma TVs, radio control and the like) would not be possible were it not for the genius of one man: Nikola Tesla. There has been so much written about this man by others more capable than I that I won't go into details, save that Edison (of whom Tesla was a former employee, and he offerred Edison a more advanced form of electricity generation, which Edison turned down, causing Nikola to leave and sell the system to George Westinghouse, who set up the first AC generating station at Niagara Falls) did all he could to wipe Tesla's name from the spotlight of electrical history. It almost worked - some would even say, to the layman, it did work.

    What invention can we really credit Edison for, though? Yep - the electric chair. Edison came up with the system in an effort to discredit Tesla, by building a device that could kill a person using AC (which, at the lower frequencies for electrical distribution tends to make the muscles of the body unresponsive). Ultimately, it didn't work out for Edison, because the efficiencies of long distance transport of power using AC won out. Tesla wanted to go one step further - wireless power transmission, of which we still don't completely understand where he was going. Some have speculated that it was based on his high frequency Tesla coil apparatus, but from what I have read and understood, Tesla was intimately familiar with resonant frequency systems, and love oscillators (both electronic and mechanical). From his published patents, and various other reading I have done, it seems most likely he was going to use his system to "pump" the earth itself to resonant frequency, to allow others anywhere in the w

  • Teflon (Score:2, Interesting)

    by IceFoot ( 256699 ) on Sunday June 18, 2006 @12:43AM (#15557363)
    TFA doesn't mention one of the more interesting accidental (or serendipitous) discoveries, Teflon.

    One day in his chemistry lab, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett went to open a tank of gaseous tetrafluoroethylene, but no gas came out. Many lab workers, even scientists, would simply replace the tank with a full one. But not Plunkett! He weighed the tank and mysteriously, it still weighed the same as when it was full of gas! Evidently the gas had *not* leaked out.

    He investigated by actually sawing the gas tank open. Inside he found a white, waxy powder! The original gas molecules had bonded together to form this incredible solid, eventually named Teflon.

    If he hadn't thought "Hmm, that's odd" and pursued it, he wouldn't have discovered Teflon.

    See /website/Serendipity.htm []

You can bring any calculator you like to the midterm, as long as it doesn't dim the lights when you turn it on. -- Hepler, Systems Design 182