Accelerate - The F-Word edition


open this image in new window: Serendipity

As the saying goes, you’ll never know unless you try and plenty of unexpected successes have come from luck or apparent failures. We take a look at some of the best examples.

The Microwave

Where would we be with out a microwave to heat up last night’s leftover curry? Thanks to Percy Spencer, we don’t have to find out. He discovered the microwave oven accidentally while inspecting a magnetron. When he was in front of the device, a chocolate bar melted in his pocket. In 1945, the microwave oven was born.

Post-It Notes


Wilson Greatbatch was on the hunt for a solution for “heart block”, a condition in which a heart does not receive messages from surrounding nerves to pump blood correctly. Greatbatch intended to create a machine to mend a broken heart. While building an oscillator to record heartbeat sounds in animals in 1958, he accidentally grabbed the wrong transistor and installed it in his device. When he switched it on, he heard the rhythmic pulsing pattern similar to a heart. His accidental invention, the pacemaker, was ideal for pulsating signals to the heart.


Electrical engineer George De Mestral noticed how perfectly cockleburs bound to his dog’s fur when he returned from a walk. So he developed a material that attached firmly but could also be easily torn apart – Velcro. It wasn't successful at first, but NASA eventually saw the appeal for space suits and zero gravity and kids lapped up the 'space age' material.


Pharmaceutical researchers Simon Campbell and David Roberts developed a drug they hoped would treat high blood pressure and angina in the 1980s. Early clinical trials showed an unexpected side effect and Pfizer launched a new clinical trial to use the drug for erectile dysfunction disorder. The trial proved successful and Viagra hit shelves in 1998.


One of the world’s most famous accidental inventions is the discovery of penicillin. Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday in 1928 and discovered one of his petri dishes had grown a mysterious mould.
Fleming observed the existing bacteria in the dish did not grow where the mould grew – indicating its potential in staving off unwanted microorganisms.

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Potato Chips

Sometime things get invented multiple times, independently, and in different parts of the world. So, while the potato chip had actually already been invented, George Crum, a chef in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1853, got fed up with a customer repeatedly returning his food, complaining that his French-fried potatoes were too fat. In a rage, Chum cut the potatoes so thin that they fried to a crisp. The customer loved them. And now we do too.

Looking at the wrong planes | Try, try and try again

Updated: 25 July 2016