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Play-Doh

Everyone has played with Play-Doh as a child—it is a staple in households across the United States, and is one of the greatest selling toys of all time, according to Time Magazine. Yet, surprisingly, this enjoyable (yet slightly odd-smelling) toy was not originally meant to be used for fun. Play-Doh was originally designed as a cleaning material, the exact opposite of its current use (as all of us know who have ever had to try to clean up Play-Doh squished into carpets and clothing).

        Noah and Joseph McVicker originally designed Play-Doh though Kutol Products, a soap-manufacturing company based out of Cincinnati. At this time, before World War II, coal was a common source of heat in homes across the United States, and would leave large soot stains on the walls. Play-Doh was effective at removing these stains, and if we continued to use coal as a household heat source, that’s all it would ever have been used for. Yet after the war, the more popular heat source became natural gas, and the original Play-Doh was no longer useful. Kutol was going out of business, and Play-Doh would no longer be produced.

                Yet, conveniently, Joseph McVicker’s sister was a schoolteacher, and needed a modeling dough to use in her classroom. Thus, in the early 1950s Play-Doh began the transformation from a cleaning supply to a children’s toy. The product began testing in 1955, and the next year the company Rainbow Crafts was founded to market the new Play-Doh.

Now, have you ever wondered where the odd, easily distinguishable smell of Play-Doh comes from? This fact also lies in the products beginnings as a cleaning material. McVicker is said to have added an artificial almond scent to the product to mask its original cleaning aroma.

Thus, thanks to the advent of natural gas and the decline of coal, children for almost sixty years have played with one of the most popular toys of all time.

X-rays

Abundant in hospitals, dentist’s offices, and even research laboratories, x-ray machines are a common tool in our modern society. They have many uses, from determining where bones are broken, to visualizing the molecular structures of unknown compounds, to providing radiation therapy for cancer patients. Yet until 1895, x-rays—let alone the modern day machines—were unknown. Only due to a German physicist, Wilhelm Rontgen, do we have these useful tools.

On November 8th, 1895, Rontgen was experimenting with cathode ray tubes in his lab. These apparatuses are glass vacuum tubes equipped with an electron gun and a fluorescent screen to visualize the images. Rontgen typically ran electricity through the tube, causing it to glow. Yet on this day, he had wrapped the tube with black cardboard, expecting it to block all light. Unexpectedly, a chemical sitting a few feet away began to glow when he turned the tube on, even though the black cardboard should have prevented any light from escaping.

What had occurred was that the cathode ray did not just emit light—it sent out other, invisible rays which could pass through paper, glass, and wood. The chemical in the glass had reacted to these rays that the tube emitted, causing a light producing reaction. When Rontgen realized what had occurred, he entitled the particles x-rays—x for unknown.  Thus, x-rays had been discovered accidentally.

After his ground-breaking discovery, Rontgen took an x-ray picture of his wife’s hand, showing her wedding ring and bones.  Apparently, she was so terrified that upon seeing the image she proclaimed “I have seen my own death!” Despite Mrs. Rontgen’s fear, this photograph roused public interest, and led to more research on x-rays and their uses. Without this accidental discovery, we would lack the many instruments we have today that take advantage of the properties of x-rays.

The Invention of a Color?

In my opinion, one of the weirdest inventions that I have ever heard of was the invention of mauve. Like the pinkish-purple color mauve. If you want to get technical, the color itself was not actually invented—obviously the color itself had existed and it was merely discovered by accident. But the true invention was how the color was captured and produced for everyday use, something that had not been possible before.

This mauve.

In 1853, fifteen-year-old William Henry Perkin began his schooling at the Royal College of Chemistry in London under the direction of August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Three years later, in an attempt to synthesize quinine—a compound used to treat malaria—Perkin decided that he would perform some additional experiments. It was these additional experiments that created the most intense purple color that Perkin had ever seen. An art enthusiast, Perkin decided that he wanted to find a way to mass produce this compound as a dye which could be used in painting. He called his mixture mauveine, and it was immediate hit, due to the expensive nature of other purple dyes during this time period. As purple was a color attributed to royalty, mauveine became immediately successful in the commercial market.


As the first synthetic organic chemical dye, mauveine opened an entirely new market for man-made clothing dyes and paints. Without this accidental discovery, it may have taken years before another scientist felt the desire to experiment with synthetic dyes, and the clothing market would have been years behind in its products. Additionally, these mad-made dyes are much cheaper than any other kind of natural dying agent, and therefore have lowered the cost of clothing, paint, and many other items that we use every day. All thanks to the random experiments of an eighteen-year-old boy, who “invented” a color.

Safety Glass

One of the most important rules in a research laboratory is to always, always, always make sure that your materials have been cleaned properly before they are put away. If chemical residue is left over, not only will future experiments be contaminated, but the resulting mixture could be dangerous—even explosive depending on what chemicals you are using. Every researcher is taught from day one how to properly dispose of waste and clean their glassware. Yet mistakes always happen. And—luckily enough for us—one of these mistakes just happened to result in an invention that actually improved laboratory safety in a huge way.


In 1903, a French scientist, Edward Benedictus, was working in his laboratory when he needed to get certain chemicals from a high shelf. Grabbing his ladder, he climbed up to the top shelf, but accidentally knocked over a flask from a shelf below. Looking down at the broken glassware, Benedictus noticed something quite interesting—the glass had not completely shattered, as was to be expected. Instead, even though the glass was cracked and broken, it still retained its general shape. There were no glass shards scattered around the laboratory, and no sharp pieces of glass that could easily cut someone.


After some investigation about this curious phenomenon, the scientist learned that one of his assistants had been getting slightly lazy with cleaning his glassware, and had not completely removed the chemical inside. The solution—cellulose nitrate—was a liquid plastic which had evaporated and coated the interior of the flask with a thin film. This chemical prevented the glass from shattering, instead holding the pieces together.

At this time, when the development of the automobile was relatively new, Benedictus realized that this new material could greatly increase the safety of vehicles, as most car accidents resulted in the driver being harmed by shattered glass. Thus safety glass was developed, and since then it has been used in hundreds of different ways—from car windshields, to safety goggles, to chemical glassware. Without this lucky accident, the world may never have known the amazing properties of cellulose nitrate.

A Dog’s Invention

Velcro was invented by a dog. Well, not quite. But despite the exaggeration, a dog did play an instrumental role in the invention, and inspired the scientist to create such a material.


In 1948, a Swiss man—George de Mestral—decided that it was the perfect day to take his dog on a hike through the mountains. After an hour or so long nature walk, tramping through the bushes and brush surrounding the trail, both man and dog were covered in those pesky burrs that get stuck in clothes or dog fur. Mestral—scientist that he was—wanted to know more about the properties of the burrs that caused them to stick so well. He took his dog underneath the microscope to examine the burrs more closely.


What he found were microscopic hooks which enabled the burr to cling strongly to the fabric loops in his pants. Inspired, Mestral decided that he could replicate this natural phenomenon in his laboratory by creating some kind of two-sided fastener. One side would contain hooks like the burrs; the other would contain loops like his pants, or his dog’s fur. The name Velcro is actually a combination of the words velour and crochet.

Within seven years, Mestral had perfected his invention and gotten his Velcro patented. Velcro Industries manufactures over sixty-million yards of Velcro per year, and is still growing.
Velcro has had many important uses, in both household and industry situations. One of the first major uses of Velcro was by the aerospace industry in space suits, to increase the ease with which astronauts could get in and out of their suits. Clothing for winter sports soon followed in the trend of using Velcro, and then scuba and marine gear joined in. Now, Velcro is used in daily household applications integral to our modern life. All because Mestral decided to take his dog on a hike through the mountains.

Chocolate and Magnets

One modern invention that has changed the way we live is the microwave oven. This machine has improved the ease with which we can feed ourselves, allowing meals to be made in minutes. While some may argue that the constant use of microwaveable meals is destroying our health, it is an undeniable fact that the invention of the microwave oven has improved our lives, and the ease with which we can live. That said, it is hard to imagine what life would be like without 2-minute meals that you can pop into the microwave if you are in a hurry.Which is why we as a society are very fortunate that a Mr. Percy Spencer had a great liking for candy bar.

The invention of the microwave oven began with the invention of a magnetron, used in World War II as radars on U.S. bombers. After the war was over, Percy Spencer, and employee of the company Raytheon, which produced the magnetrons, was touring one of the labs. As he paused to examine a magnetron, he noticed that a candy bar which he kept in his pocket began to melt. WHile other researchers had noticed a similar phenomenon, none by Spencer realized the importance of the discovery.

After Spencer realized that the magnetron did, in fact, have an effect on his candy bar, he decided to test it out on a multitude of other items. The magnetron successfully popped popcorn, and even exploded an egg right into Spencer’s coworker’s face. Realizing how useful such an item could be in the household, Spencer produced the first microwave oven in 1946. While it was much larger than the model we use today (almost the size of a refidgerator), and much more expensive (the equivalent of about $3000 today), the microwave oven was a huge success, and immediately began to be adapted for home use.

Without this man’s love of candy, the world may never have known the household uses of micro-waves. Everyday live and cooking would have been changed drastically.

Crunch Crunch, Potato Chips!

How weird would it be if potato chips never existed? These addicting, salty snacks are a staple in school cafeterias all over the United States, and are always a party favorite. Yet their discovery was also completely unintentional.


In 1853, the fried potato was quite a popular menu item. Yet at the Moon’s Lake House, a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., one extremely picky diner was never quite happy with his order of fried potato. Just like Goldilocks, the patron could not be pleased by his meal: according to his expert opinion, his fried potatoes were not crispy enough. He sent his order back to the kitchen. Furious, the head chef at the restaurant—George Crum—decided that he would show the nit-picky diner exactly how crispy potatoes could get. In his anger, Crum chopped the potatoes to be paper-thin, made them extremely salty, and fried them to the extreme. Unfortunately for Crum, the diner absolutely loved the meal. From that point on “Saratoga Chips” were part of the menu at Moon’s Lake House. Eventually, they gained popularity across the country, and became known as the modern day potato chip.


In 1895, potato chips first began being sold in a grocery store, thanks to the work of William Tappendon, who started a potato chip factory out of his barn. Then, in the 1920’s, the mass production of the potato chip began. Companies that we now recognize as snack-food giants first began at this time period, including Wise, Lay’s, and Utz. All of these common names first became successful with the production of the potato chip, all thanks to one customers complaint and an accidental attempt at revenge.


It’s interesting to realize that such a common food item—one which is present in almost every household—came to be because of an irate chef and a picky customer. Potato chips, while not an integral part of our society, are such a commonplace item that it is hard to imagine their nonexistence.

Fireworks!

One of the oldest accidental discoveries on record occurred in a kitchen in China, approximately 2,000 years ago. A cook mixed charcoal, saltpeter (Potassium Nitrile), and sulfur over a hot fire, after which it easily combusted. If this mixture was placed inside a bamboo case, pressure built up inside the casing and the mixture exploded. This shockingly flammable discovery lead to the invention of a common explosive in our modern society: the firework. The Chinese called the chemical mixture placed inside the bamboo “Fire Chemical,” and soon were using this basic fire cracker as a part of commonplace festivities—religious rituals, wedding celebrations, funerals. The loud bang emitted from the cracker was believed to ward away harmful spirits from festivals.


This basic chemical mixture said to have been accidentally discovered in the kitchen of a Chinese chef lead to what we now know as a firework. After this initial discovery, historians believe that Marco Polo transported the basic firework from China to areas in the Middle East, from whence it was brought to England. The English interest in fireworks was mainly for its explosive properties, and its potential to be used in chemical warfare. They developed the ration of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur that is still used in fireworks today. Yet, it was not until this discovery was brought to the Italians that the art form of fireworks was truly developed. In Italy, different colors and strategies for creating fireworks were developed. Yet all of this was due to the accidental discovery of the explosive properties of this mixture by a Chinese chef.


We have the Chinese to thank for our New Year’s and Fourth of July celebrations, without which we would have no colorful displays of fireworks to celebrate our holidays. While this accidental discovery is not life changing, it does majorly affect our societal traditions.

Artificial Sugar–A Not So Sweet Discovery

Of all scientific discoveries, the discovery of the uses of saccharine—the artificial sweetner—must be one of the most unsanitary.


The chemical saccharin was first discovered in the laboratory of Ira Remsen, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, in 1878. Remsen allowed a Russian chemist called Constantin Fahlberg to work in his lab, and to conduct his own researched.

One day in 1878, after a long day of working in the lab, Fahlberg went home to eat dinner with his wife. Mrs. Fahlberg had made her usual homemade bread that night, but Mr. Fahlberg noticed a difference in it that night—it was much notably sweeter. After confirming with his wife that she had not, in fact, changed the recipe for the bread, Fahlberg realized that he must have transferred some kind of chemical from the lab to his dinner table. (Obviously, Fahlberg was not a huge proponent of personal hygiene, or even washing his hands after working with dangerous chemicals.)

Okay, so maybe they weren’t this dirty.

The next day, Fahlberg entered the lab with one purpose—to discover the sweet substance that had improved the quality of his food. And the only way to do this was by tasting all of his lab equipment (which apparently he had also not washed). Every beaker, dish, and vial, Fahlberg tasted to try and find his sweet chemical. Eventually, after much unsanitary testing, Fahlberg recognized the sweet flavor of a beaker containing benzoic sulfinide.

This lucky—yet unsanitary—accident resulted in the first viable alternative to cane sugar, and led to those little pick packets that we see every time we go out to eat. Sweet’N Low is now one of the most popular substitutes for natural sugar, and is available is almost every eating establishment. Without Fahlberg’s lack of concern for personal hygiene, and his own safety, the world would never have known the food-related used of saccharine.

The Big Bang!

In the mid 1960s, two astronomers named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson decided that they wanted to map signals from the Milky Way, using an extremely large antenna to pick up the signals. To their frustration, instead of receiving short, distinct radio signals, all that they could hear was a constant hum that blocked out any other noise. Ruling out any kind of extra-terrestrial life, the researchers attempted to discover where else the noise could be coming from. Tests ruled out noise from nearby New York City, or any kind of military testing taking place nearby. Frustrated, the two could not figure out where else this white-noise could be coming from. As a last-ditch effort, after discovering pigeon droppings on and nearby the antenna, Penzias and Wilson decided that the only other possible explanation for the disruption of the antenna signal was pigeons. Obviously.

After attempting to scare away the birds, the researchers decided that their only other option was to commit a pigeon massacre. According to Penzias, “To get rid of them, we finally found the most humane thing was to get a shot gun…and at very close range [we] just killed them instantly. It’s not something I’m happy about, but that seemed like the only way out of our dilemma.”

Goodbye, pigeons.

Yet the serial pigeon homicide did nothing to remove the humming noise from the antenna. So the only other option was that this long, constant signal was actually coming from outer space, and may possibly have a significant meaning.

Around this same time, physicist Robert Dicke of Princeton University had noted the likelihood that, if an event such as the Big Bang had occurred, low level radiation would be dispersed throughout the entire universe. Hearing this, Penzias and Wilson made the connection between their incessant buzzing noise and Dicke’s prediction.

Thus, by accident, these two researchers discovered distinct proof of the Big Bang Theory. While the idea had been around since the 1920s, this was one of the first events in which a concrete support of the theory had been discovered. Penzias’ and Wilson’s accidental discovery advanced study of the Big Bang by a giant leap, allowing other scientists to continue more advanced work on the subject.

And we also have them to thank for a lovely TV show.