What were the accidents that changed the world?

If the big bang hypothesis is right — the scientific postulate, not the television program — then the world is one huge happy accident and all life as we know it is. Ditto for the natural selection and evolution. You might also argue that every man, woman and child on Earth is a product of the happy accident of meeting and falling in love with their parents. Class of a line, if you ask me. Before you make mistakes, read on to find out a list of world-changing events and innovations that began as an accident. 

  1. A Miracle Medicine

In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a Scottish surgeon, was in such a hurry to go on holiday that he mistakenly left a stack of dirty petri dishes in his sink. The dishes were smeared with Staphylococcus, a bacterium that causes inflammation, sore throats, and food poisoning, as though this were not already disgusting. 

As Dr Fleming came back weeks later, in his sink, he found something odd about the mess. One of the Petri dishes was dotted everywhere with bacteria except where some mould was growing. The area around it was evident, as if it were covered by an invisible shield. Dr. Fleming realized, after closer inspection, that the mould, a rare type of Penicillium notatum, had secreted a ‘mold juice’ which killed several strands of deadly bacteria. Dr Fleming published his amazing finding – and almost nobody heard it. In reality, years later, while leafing through old medical papers, Howard Walter Florey, an Australian pathologist, found Fleming ‘s paper by mistake.

Dr Florey started to investigate the therapeutic effects of mould juice along with biochemist Ernst Boris Chain, and by 1941 they had obtained enough penicillin to use on the first human subject, a 43-year-old police officer suffering from a terminal bacterial infection. The findings were astonishing: the patient’s fever decreased and his appetite returned and he was praised as a miracle doctor by the penicillin used to treat it. Unfortunately the officer’s illness returned when supplies ran out and he died.

Dr Fleming also shared the Nobel Prize for his work with Dr Florey and Chain. “I definitely didn’t intend to revolutionize all medicine by finding the first antibiotic in the world,” he said, “but I think that’s exactly what I’ve done.”

2. A molten chocolate bar helps create the microwave oven

The sinking of the Titanic has so much fascinated Percy Spencer that he has become a physicist. He joined the U.S. Navy, trained as a radio electrician, and ultimately became a civilian radar specialist during the Second World War. And he did it all with no high school graduation ever.

After the battle, Spencer worked for defense contractor Raytheon Manufacturing. One day as he was walking near the radar equipment, he was missing mentally stuck his hand in his pocket of his shirt-and found a gooey mess. Spencer also brought a chocolate bar for Mr. Peanut to feed the squirrels at lunch. He knew enough about radar to believe that the guilty could be the heat-producing magnetron waves but he wasn’t positive. So he placed a bag of popcorn kernels in front of the machine – and they popped. Then came a raw egg, which dutifully exploded all over a sceptical colleague’s face.

Spencer refined his invention with Raytheon and sold it as ‘the Radarange’ to trains, hotels, and cruise liners – or, as it is now called, the microwave oven. Luckily, since 1947, microwaves have come a long way, when they stood nearly 1.8 meters tall and weighed 340 kg.

3. Dr Seuss and Stephen King are spared from history’s rubbish bin

Stephen King and Dr. Seuss have two things in common, no matter how different they might be. They are both among history’s most influential writers, and they both have narrowly avoided a life of darkness.

Theodor Geisel-the name given to the good doctor-published in the mid-1930s his first book for children, A Tale No One Can Beat. At the time, Geisel was working as a promotional illustrator and submitted his whimsical manuscript to 27 publishers. They all turned it down. Geisel stomped down New York’s Madison Avenue after the last cold shoulder, ready to burn the novel and, maybe, his literary career.

He ran into his old college roommate, Mike McClintock, who happened to edit children’s books at Vanguard Press when he was out cooling off. Geisel expressed his woes with McClintock who called for the story to be published. McClintock proposed a few changes, and in 1937 Vanguard published the book with a new title: And on Mulberry Street to Say That I Saw It. According to Geisel: “If I had gone down the other side of Madison Avenue, today I would have been in the dry-cleaning market.”

The first book published by Stephen King was about a bullied teenage girl who learns that she has incredible mental powers which she uses to take vengeance on her tormentors. The worst critic of King was not the publishers-it was himself. According to his memoir On Fiction, he hated his story so much that he threw it away after fiction just three chapters. A few hours later his wife discovered that the pages in the bin were crumpled and covered with cigarette ash. She took them out, and began reading, and was hooked. “She wanted me to move on,” King wrote later. “She wanted to know the rest of the story.” So he started. In her first year Carrie sold over one million copies of paper-back.

4. A dog donates velcro to the earth

A natural inventor, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral was. He was designing and patenting a replica aeroplane when he was 12. As he grew older, he found nature the planet ‘s greatest creator so he held his eyes open for experimentation to mimic naturally occurring phenomena. This is where his Irish faithful pointer came in.

De Mestral found after a day of hiking in the Swiss mountains that his dog was riddled with spiky burrs, much as his own pants were. He placed the burrs under the microscope and found tiny ‘hooks’ at the ends of their bristles which seemed to catch on most fur and clothing. Since de Mestral was no fan of zippers – they seemed to freeze in the Alpine winter – he spent the next ten years attempting to replicate his hiking partner’s overwhelming attraction to the burrs.

He found the right material for his invention after endless attempts: nylon, which was sturdy enough to hold the hooks but pliable enough to break with the right pull. De Mestral called his creation Velcro, the French word for ‘hook,’ a mixture of velvet and crochet.

5. Ping-pong ball dents The Great Wall of China

One day, Glenn Cowan practiced for the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, when he discovered that he had missed the team bus back to the hotel. Undaunted, the 19-year-old American just jumped onto the Chinese national team plane. Most Chinese athletes stared with skepticism at the shaggy-haired boy – the US had broken diplomatic relations with China back in 1949, and the team was forbidden to speak to the Americans as much as they could.

But the star player from the team, Zhuang Zedong, stepped forward to shake Cowan ‘s hand. The two spoke through an interpreter, and Zhuang showed a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan mountain range in China to the American. The next day, Cowan, a self-described hippie, gave Zhuang a T-shirt featuring a sign of peace and the words ‘Let It Be.’ After being beamed around the world after the spontaneous exchange of goodwill, Chinese leader Mao Zedong has invited the entire US team to visit. Chairman Richard Nixon made his own landmark trip to Beijing one year later.

6. A clerical control makes It a Wonderful Life a classic

Frank Capra’s 1946 film was a financial failure, despite its status as one of the most admired works of cinema. At the box office, it struggled to win back its US$ 2.3 million budget, and its losses helped bankrupt its production business, Liberty Films. Capra later said the financial woes of Liberty have proven “fatal to my professional future.”

And yet it’s a Beautiful Life today is a classic. How could that be? Carefreeness. After Liberty Films split, nobody was thinking about controlling the copyright of the movie, which came to an end in 1974. That meant TV stations could broadcast it free without paying any royalties. It wasn’t until 1990, that the rights were locked up again effectively. But by then, without seeing the classic, many people could not picture Christmas.

7. Fog rescues George Washington and a revolution

The year 1776 was a bleak one for the American Revolution, despite the fireworks and festivities on July 4th each. The British had pushed the Continental Army of George Washington up to the western edge of Long Island on August 29. His troops were captured at Brooklyn Heights by English soldiers, while English warships patrolled the East River of New York to his rear.

The American Revolution seemed to all observers to be hours away from ending with General Washington’s capture and his powerless Army.

But then the area was hit by a heavy rain forcing English general William Howe to delay his assault. At a time when historian David McCullough later dubbed the “Dunkirk of the Revolution,” this brief pause gave Washington the precious time it needed to free its men from the noose around them. He managed to sneak soldiers across the East River under the cover of the night and into the morning when a thick fog fell miraculously and kept hidden from the British the movements of his army.

The British were flummoxed by the moment the fog fell. The entire army of George Washington had withdrawn to Manhattan, along with all their equipment. The last soldier to leave Long Island was allegedly General Washington. Despite a tactical defeat, Washington’s retreat is considered one of the US military’s narrowest escapes in history.

Hope this little tidbit of knowledge benefits you. A Merry Xmas to once and all! 

Check out my related post: How to solve mysteries?

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