What does phosphorus, x-rays, kevlar, LSD, teflon, and Flash all have in common? They were all discovered by scientific accidents, mistakes and bloopers. Discovery Magazine has yet another great “Top 20 things you didn’t know” article about laboratory flukes.
1 There went our best chance: In the ninth century, a team of Chinese alchemists trying to synthesize an “elixir of immortality” from saltpeter, sulfur, realgar, and dried honey instead invented gunpowder.
2 German scientist Hennig Brand stored 50 buckets of urine in his cellar for months in 1675, hoping that it would turn into gold. Instead, an obscure mix of alchemy and chemistry yielded a waxy, glowing goo that spontaneously burst into flame–the element now known as phosphorus.
3 Soldiers supplied the raw material in vast, sloshing quantities until the 1750s, when Swedish chemist Carl Scheele developed an industrial method of producing phosphorus. He discovered eight other elements, including chlorine, oxygen, and nitrogen, and compounds like ammonia, glycerin, and prussic acid.
4 Scheele was found dead in his lab at age 43, perhaps owing to his propensity for tasting his own toxic chemicals.
After reading this article, I got to thinking about what other things were conceived by accident (besides my youngest brother), and I found some interesting stuff. Wired.com has an article about accidental discoveries like brandy and silly putty while some digging at Wikipedia and Google Scholar revealed a bevy of scientific bloopers. Most interesting of all is a book entitled Accidents May Happen (50 Inventions Discovered By Mistake) by Charlotte Jones.