I was very surprised. Maybe I can write.
Some of the world’s greatest products and discoveries were stumbled upon by accident. A few inventions are the opposite of what the inventor first had in mind. Some discoveries, such as the law of gravity, came about through happenstance.
1. Dreaming Up a Big Idea
The 19th-century German scientist August Kekule is regarded to this day as one of the principal founders of modern organic chemistry and a leader in his day of innovation in the chemical industry.
No 19th-century discovery is more famous than Kekule’s dream-state vision of the makeup of the benzene atom. It came to him in a dream while dozing in front of a fire in his home during the winter of 1861–62 in Ghent, Belgium, where he worked as a professor of chemistry at the Ghent University.
He asserted the vision in the dream revealed the atomic structure of the benzene ring. The dream was in the form of a self-devouring snake Kekule said. In 1865 he reported his discovery as the basis for another major group of carbon molecules that allowed carbon to bond in many different ways and with many different elements.
Of all the cases referred to by psychiatrists, psychologists and historians of science to shed light on the role of symbolism in creative thought, few are more controversial, praised and discussed than Kekule’s discovery.
At least one historian believed Kekule never did experience the “snake vision dream” and claimed the benzene ring had previously been considered by other chemists around the time Kekule’s claim was first published. Dr. John H. Wotiz, a professor of chemistry at Southern Illinois University carried out an exhaustive study of Kekule’s documents that were left to his scientific heirs after his death.
He organized a conference of peers in 1990 to try to sort fact from fiction by reviewing Kekule’s claims but the conference came to an inconclusive end after Wotiz and his wife were killed in an auto accident in 2001. In the aftermath, the affair seems to have been less about who deserved credit for the discovery of the benzene ring structure and more about whether the history of chemistry should be written by historians with a limited chemistry background.
2. The Black Death, an Apple and a Universal Discovery
The Black Death pandemic that rampaged around the globe in the sixteenth century can be credited for the discovery of one of the world’s most universal laws; the law of gravity. In 1665, the Bubonic plague in England forced Cambridge University, known as one of the world’s best universities, to close its doors. This left Isaac Newton, then an undergraduate, to return to his home in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, UK.
As history has recorded, Newton was sitting in his garden and saw an apple fall from a tree. Some proponents of this event claim the apple hit Newton on the head. However it happened, this minor event provided the inspiration to develop his law of universal gravitation. Newton, twenty-two years old; unremarkable, unrecognized and unknown, not only discovered the universal law of gravity but changed the face of citizen science.
Apparently, the apple tree stills stands but does the story? According to a letter by Newton and included in a biography of Newton entitled Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life written by William Stukeley, an archaeologist and one of Newton’s first biographers, and published in 1752, the answer is yes. Newton shared the apple story with Stukeley who relayed it as follows:
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees. He told me he was just in the same place as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned by the fall of an apple as he sat in a contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, he thought to himself…”
For science and amateur historians, The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy, made the manuscript available in 2010 for the first time in digital form on their website.
3. Gambling Addiction Led to a New Convenience Food
The simple sandwich must have been the biggest innovation in the food industry since the first use of fire for cooking; and possibly the first fast-food serving. Its accidental inventor was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich who inherited the title through his family after it was granted royal recognition in 1660. His grandfather, a renowned naval commander was awarded the titles Baron Montagu, of St Neots, Viscount Hinchingbrooke and Peer of England.
John Montagu had a serious gambling problem. During a long overnight session in 1762, he asked the house cook to bring food to the gaming table so he could eat without having to give up his seat.
When the cook asked what she should serve, Montagu suggested she slice up some roast beef and place them between two slices of bread. This simple fare allowed the Earl to eat with one hand (with no need for utensils) and to continue playing with the other — and so the sandwich was born. The name of the cook was never recorded and nothing more is known about her.
The Earl of Sandwich unintentionally immortalized his family name in what has become one of the most common global fast-foods and a real innovation for the fast-food industry.
4. Almost Drowning with Ideas
Dr. NakaMats is a Japanese inventor with around three and a half thousand patents registered in his name. He attributes the source of many of his inventions to his very strange methodology of deliberately depriving himself of oxygen by submersing himself in a pool. He claims he can visualize an invention and then write it down with a waterproof pen and notepaper shortly before losing consciousness.
He is also known as Yoshiro Nakamatsu and claims to be the original inventor of the computer floppy disk. He says that the details of his agreement with the IT giant IBM remain confidential. The floppy disk is considered a major step forward in computer science.
NalaMats is a highly prolific inventor along the lines of Thomas Edison, inventor of the most widely used electric light bulb, the high resistance, incandescent bulb that came to be regarded as an innovation in the lighting industry.
He was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for Nutrition in 2005 after photographing and logging every meal he’d eaten in a nutrition project dating back over 40 years.
5. How a Hunting Dog Caused the Invention of a New Fastener
In the 1940s, a Swiss engineer by the name of George de Mestral was taking a break from his laboratory by engaging in his pet pastime: hunting with his favorite dog. The countryside where he lived was infested with a plant locally known as burdock or burrdock. The large leaves of the burdock plant were ideal at the time for wrapping foods for campfire cooking but the plant itself was considered a nuisance. It had tiny hooks that annoyingly attached themselves to animal fur and clothing and took a great deal of effort to remove.
In 1941, de Mistral returned from a hunting expedition. After de-burring his dog and himself, he decided to examine the burrs under his microscope. He noticed tiny hooks protruding from each burr creating the attachment of the burr to fabrics and furs. de Mestral thought there could be a practical use for his discovery. Over the next few years, he experimented with a variety of fabrics before coming across a newly invented fabric called nylon. Both Velcro and nylon would become integral innovations in the clothing industry.
de Mistral’s new fastening device consisted of two components. Tiny hooks were first embedded in a fabric strip that would then attach themselves to small loops set in an opposing fabric strip. Though attaching firmly, they could easily be pulled apart. He named his new product Velcro; a combination of the abbreviation of two French words velour meaning velvet and crochet meaning hook.
Twenty years later, de Mistral’s new fastener came into global demand when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began using Velcro in their burgeoning space program.
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