Accidental discoveries

Accidental Discoveries

1. (noun)accident

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an unfortunate mishap; especially one causing damage or injury

2.(noun)accident, stroke, fortuity, chance event

anything that happens suddenly or by chance without an apparent cause

Defined as, the act or an instance of discovering, a person, place or thing that has been discovered. Majority of accidental discoveries are science based due to different chemicals being spilt, left too long to boil or too much of a specific chemical added to one or another solution. Huge ranges of discoveries have been made in an accidental way. Creating a large impact on people and society. Discoveries such as Insulin, The Microwave, Potato chips, Teflon, and Cookies also said to have been discovered by accident.

However having most impact on society, discoveries such as Penicillin and X-ray widely used everyday within medicine are two of the best used accidental discoveries.

Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something entirely unrelated. (Roberts, 1989)


Commonly associated with the discovery of Penicillin is Alexander Fleming, who in 1928 discovered and named the drug Penicillin.

Leading to the discovery at the time, Fleming was said to have taken time away from his laboratory, located at St Mary’s Medical School London, known to be a very in tidy, unclean type of guy Fleming had poor housekeeping leaving food, unclean items in his Lab. Due to un sterile conditions, once Fleming had returned it was noted that small mould spores were forming on test slides left to the open air. Mould began to grow on the slides causing cross-contamination, creating bacteria. The area surrounding the mould in the dish was clear, suggesting that bacteria could not survive near mould. Fleming predicted, compounds created by the mould must have anti-bacterial action. (Fleming, 1929) This leading to the discovery of the substance Penicillin.

Associated with the discovery of Penicillin primarily is Fleming; raised in Scotland is a prominent individual within medicine, helping with the development of many science and medicine based substances. Fleming’s personality and background was one well educated, competitive in his specialised field, said to have a keen passion for discovery. He was very observant, intuitive and curious, helping with his discovery, as others may have not questioned the mould on the slides. As Fleming had only touched the basics of creating the drugs substance, two other scientists who are less commonly known, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, got hold of the penicillin substance and developed it further into the drug form. (British Library)

The discovery of penicillin is one that has revolutionised the medical industry and the way in which most common infections are treated. Saving many lives since. Penicillin was the first antibiotic used to treat antibacterial infection successfully.

Supplies of the drug became available by the 1940s but were limited.

At the time Fleming discovered Penicillin, 1928, society was unstable. WWI in 1914 ending 1918, (Ho, 1999) penicillin was highly needed but not discovered yet. Following on from this WWII 1939 ending 1945, Penicillin was being developed am some doses were able to save lives, if it was mass produced better and had become available before the end of the war many lives would have been saved. Recent developments state that five impacts on society have occurred since development of Penicillin (Sun, 2005). One, Bacterial infections are no longer so common, recognising Penicillin as the most life saving drug in the world. (Ho, 1999). Secondly, Penicillin has bacteriological properties, fighting and killing unwanted bacteria. (Fleming, 1929) Thirdly, the discovery of Penicillin trigged further research into creating new antibiotics. Forth being, a “man-made negative impact” meaning the more Penicillin is used on a human the more susceptible to it the human becomes. The fifth being that Penicillin saves lives. Penicillin has become vital as part of the medicine industry, making Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin a very important one, however accidental.


X ray (roentgen ray), electromagnetic radiation of short wavelength produced when high speed electrons strike a solid target, a radiogram made by exposing photographic film to X rays; used in medical diagnosis. (Collins 2000) Is a further discovery within science and field of medicine that occurred by accident.

In 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen a German physicist discovered X rays. Conducting experiments in his lab on the effects of cathode rays, a beam of electrons that pass from a negative to positive charge ends of a tube using high voltage. The tube produced once lit, Roentgen noticed that the rays from the cathode illuminated a screen covered in fluorescent material barium. Pondering the effects of this Roentgen covered the tube in black paper, switched on the current and noticed the glow could still be seen through the paper. This then resulted in Roentgen using various objects and passing the current through it. The screen always continued to glow illuminated. The breakthrough came when Roentgen projected his hand on the screen showing a contrast between flesh and opaque bones. Using a photographic plate enabled an image to be captured. Meaning internal structures of the body could be visible without surgery. (Glasser, 1992) Naming X ray, as in mathematics X equals an unknown quantity.

Roentgen, raised in Lennop, Germany, always said to have shown qualities in puling things apart and being particularly interested in nature from a young age. Troublesome school years left him very un academic and was expelled from school with no qualifications. A disappointment to Roentgen as he was keen to follow sciences and experimentation. Taking up a mechanical engineering degree in his late teens as he had nothing better to do, allowed him to gain qualifications securing him a place at a University, both studying, teaching and carrying out experiments at night. One night doing so this is how X rays were discovered, November 1895. After the discovery was made Roentgen showed his photos famously being of his wife’s hand in a small exhibition. Stirring up medical and science professionals. Duplicates of Roentgen’s discovery were being made and by 1896 at Glasgow Royal Infirmary an X ray department had been set up. Doctors realised the benefits of the discovery utilising it as much as possible. The use of X ray is to photograph a patients body, a part of the body is in front of the X ray light with photographic film placed behind. Rays shine through the body part highlighting bone in a dark colour and flesh much lighter. Dr Hall-Edwards was the first Doctor to made a diagnosis using X ray. (British Library)

The Impact on society at the time was huge, as with developments in the first 20 years after the discovery, X ray was used to treat soldiers in the WWI saving lives then and X ray has continued to do so up to now. Eventually in 1900s it was noticed that frequent exposure to X ray could be harmful to the body destroying healthy cells, noting the effects enabled the discovery that the rays were powerful enough to fight cancer cells and skin dieses, allow killing healthy cells too, effected areas must be carefully exposed. This was another breakthrough as Cancer and other illnesses need treating. Development of the process has enabled more uses of the X ray, not just within medicine. X rays are now used in industry as security measures and are used within hospitals on a day-to-day basis.


Now known as hook-and-loop, a nylon fabric used as a fastening was discovered after George de Mestral took advantage upon sorting out an irritating problem he had. In 1941 after taking walks in the Alps and through fields, wearing long coats and walking his dog. Mestral took it upon himself to take a closer look at why he himself and his dog returned home with burrs stuck to himself and dogs fur. Burrs are plant seeds covered in small hooks. Mestral noticed it was hard to brush the burrs off and more force was needed to pull the burr from the coat or fur. Examining the burrs under a microscope, Mestral saw that the burr was a maze of thin strands with burrs or (hooks) on the end. (Bellis, 1997) Knowing how tightly the burrs stick to fabric and fur, Mestral realised there was potential to develop a new fastener. Taking 8 years to develop to get the fastening right, experimenting with various cloths, hook making and using woven fabrics. The first cloth used had velvet like appearance, naming the invention after French words, velvet “velour” and hook “crochet”, calling the invention Velcro, (Stephens, 2007). By 1988 manufacture of nylon and plastics had developed, resulting in the final invention being to strips of nylon fabric, one contains lots of small hooks, the other small loops, pressed together form a very strong bond.

Mestral, a Swiss man, who’s Velcro became something said to have “hooked the world”, born in 1907 near Lake Geneva showed inactive and a very inquisitive nature from a young age. Gaining a patent at the age of only 12. Went on to study and graduate as a electrical engineer. Inventing such a new idea said to “rival the common zip” (Stephens, 2007). Quoted to have said that an inventor is “a madman who has a transcendent idea, a spark of light” (Freeman, 1997).

VELCRO company formed nowadays is one of the largest hook-and-loop fasteners used in fashion and other applications. Its strong, can be easily separated, lightweight, durable and is washable. Various colours are also available.

“In the field of observation, change favours only the prepared mind”

(Louis Pasteur, 1854)

Textile Inventions

1. (noun)invention, innovation

a creation (a new device or process) resulting from study and experimentation


the act of inventing

Defined as, the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial nation. Was a “revolution” starting in Britain, that saw people move from working on land to work within manufacture. Many people moved to the cities looking for larger factory jobs. New methods of manufacture meant things could be made faster and at a lower cost. Machine manufacturing also had a profound impact on modern society. Throughout the time there were many big inventions such as, The Locomotive, Steam Engine, and within textiles, Water Frame, Spinning Jenny, Spinning Frame, Looms plus more. Industrialisation was at a high with new methods, ideas and inventions being created. New materials were also developed, allowing things to be produced very efficiently.

Spinning Jenny

In a short space of time several inventions in textile machinery were created, thanks to the industrial revolution. Machinery such as the flying shuttle, spinning frame, spinning jenny and cotton gin were created to allow easier production of materials. All the machines facilitated handling a large amount of cotton. In 1764 a British carpenter and weaver James Hargreeves invented the Spinning Jenny, a hand-powered multiple spinning machine that was first to improve upon the what was, Spinning Wheel. (Beliss, 2008).

Knitting Machine

Through the industrial revolution more machines were invented to take on the demand or production to a higher rate. Machines were needed to improve the speed of production of woven fabric to meet demand for yarn and thread. Most machinery and textile production at the time, late 18th century, was weaving and spinning. Similar improvements and better use of knitting machines was being done. Now days knitting machines are just as important as weaving machines, if not more important due to demands of fashioning. Around 1589 the first knitting machine was constructed, by an English man named Rev William Lee. Its said that Lee was always annoyed by the clacking of his wife’s knitting needles, imaging a device that instead of using the slow process of knitting one loop at a time, could knit a whole row at once. (2009) Devices of this nature had been used by carpet weaves for many years up to this point. Lee took this idea and added a line of hooks that would release knitted loops, making room for another line to follow on. Lee travelled with his brother trying to market the idea for the frame but had no success, not wanting to give up. Lee created a partnership with a Nottingham business man, who then with Lee built the worlds first knitting factory. However becoming so successful local hand knitters complained to the government, appealing for limiting use of the factories knitting frames, not wanting drive and change in industry to take place. Certain items such as stockings were no longer seen as a luxury item due to the now mass production. Methods of producing clothing remained the same until the 1700s where then improvements of the knitting frame were made to create different kinds of knitted fabric. Material was now being produced in warp knit and in 1758 Jedediah Strutt designed a machine to knit rib fabric, circular machine for tubular fabric designed in 1978 by Frenchman Decroix. In 1855 the first water powered knitting frame was constructed in Loughbrough, England. After this the most important development in knitting technology was the latch needle, half hook with a small latch that opened and closed. Using this made the knitting process even faster and more reliable.

Lee, was infatuated and determined to create a machine that he devoted 3 years of his time to it. Said to have had, such an aversion to hand knitting. The rapid process of knitting he has invented was an astonishing achievement and was pronounced almost unequalled in the history of mechanical invention. (Smiles, 1859)

His small invention went along way within industry involving many inventors who develop the machine in their own way. The impact the invention had on society at the time was huge although Lee played a small part in the invention and was taken over by other inventors in time. In factories nowadays knitting takes place on huge machines with lines of needles knitting up to for million stitches each second.

Jacquard Machine

In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard invented an improved textile loom. One of the first looms to use punch card, these controlling weaving patterning, control and workmen were not need to be so skilled. Patience, hard work and skill were not needed as much.

Living in Lyon, Jacquards family owned a small weaving business, where Jacquard worked on a draw-loom from a young age. Jacquard was a draw boy, this was to sit inside the loom, lift or move a number of threads this was a small, cramped and dusty job and after his parents died Jacquard set out to improve the loom and the factories conditions so no draw boy was needed. At this time Lyon was a thriving weaving area, where lots of silk weaving was done. Jacquard noticed the weaving process was long and tedious. Jacques de Vaucanson an inspector of silk factories in Lyon had already invented an automatic weaving machine in 1745 with automated pattern control. Vaucansons machine was based on a system of holes punched into stiff card, which eliminated the job of the draw boy, the job Jacquard had done for many years. Vaucanson was not very successful as his machine was rejected by Lyons weavers guild as a non useable machine and was placed in a museum in Paris. Jacquard however had the idea his machine was based on this use of punch cards and he worked for many years trying to copy Vaucansons machine. Jacquards idea to make the loom automated was to add a device on top of the treadle-operated loom to “process” the punched cards. Then using an “endless” loop of connected perforated cards created what he wanted to achieve. Punched cards pass over a set of needles, which pressed against the card, a hole in the card came up, the needle would detect this and activate the threading mechanism. Each hole in the card corresponded to a hook which could be either in the up or the down position. The hook raised or lowered the thread and the sequence of the raised or lowered threads is what constituted the pattern. By changing the pattern of the holes in the cards the pattern in the textile produced on the loom could be changed. (Wobbe, 2006) The first programmable loom had been designed, allowing multiple patterns to be produced on one weave or easy changing of the punch cards.

Jacquard, although successful caused a lot of controversy at the time in society, as income in most families was poor, most loom workers used their children as draw boys securing income into the family. The new loom brought unemployment which was not a good thing for the poorer society. In 1806 the master of what was the weavers guild in Lyon commanded public destruction of the new loom as it was perceived as a threat to jobs in the weaving trade. Jacquards invention had a major impact on the textile trade and his technology has become the basis for the modern automated looms. Textiles could be produced at a lower cost and with less amount of work involved, designs can be more complex, and technically perfect. Jacquards invention had an impact on the weaving industry but also on technology, sparking off the computer industry, due to the fact the punch cards store the same pattern and information on and can be used over and over again. a Swiss invention hooked the world.html (Stephens 2007.)

Freeman, A, Golden B (1997) Why Didn’t I Think of That: Bizarre Origins of Ingenious Inventions We Couldn’t Live Without, Wiley, Canada.

Veasey, N, (2008) X-Ray, Goodman Books; First Edition, Hong Kong.

Glasser, O, (1992) Wilhelm Conroad Roentgen and the Early History of the Roentgen Rays, Norman Publishing,U.S.; 2 edition

Garcia, K, (2002) Wilhelm Roentgen and the Discovery of X-Rays (Unlocking the Secrets of Science), Mitchell Lane Publishers. (Wobbe Vetger, 2006)

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