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Tuesday, June 18, 2013
|Source: Dubai Gold & Jewellery Group|
Accidental discoveries that led to convenience
In an era of constant innovation and discovery, we may not realise that most inventions take years - even decades - to develop. But, as history shows us, people have crafted new inventions and stumbled upon discoveries by accident.
It all started with Will Keith Kellogg, his interest in medicine and a bout of forgetfulness. Kellogg assisted his brother, who worked as a doctor at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, with patients and their diets. While conducting research with his brother and helping cook meals for patients, Kellogg stumbled upon a discovery that would change his life. Responsible for making bread dough one day, Kellogg accidentally left his main ingredient - boiled wheat - sitting out for several hours. When he came back to roll the ingredient into dough, the wheat became flaky. Curious to see what would happen, Kellogg baked the flaky dough anyway, creating a crunchy and flaky snack. The flakes were a hit with patients, so Kellogg embarked on a mission to enhance the product for large-scale sale. Will Kellogg tinkered with his recipe and finally settled on using corn as a main ingredient for the flakes. He launched his business, "The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company," in 1906, which eventually came to be known as the Kellogg's company that sells Corn Flakes, other cereals and convenience foods today.
Studying explosives isn't for the lighthearted. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, learned this the hard way. In efforts to stabilise nitroglycerin, an explosive liquid, Nobel and laboratory workers experienced several accidents - one of which ultimately proved fatal. An explosion in Stockholm, Sweden, left Nobel's younger brother and a few others dead in 1864. No one knew how exactly this accident affected Nobel, but most suspect it further pushed him to find a solution to safely store explosive materials. With this new knowledge of the instability of nitroglycerin, Nobel continually tested methods to detonate and store explosives. Some say that Nobel discovered the key to stabilising the substance through another accident. While transporting nitroglycerin, Nobel noticed that one of the cans accidentally broke open and leaked. He discovered that the material in which the cans were packed - a sedimentary rock mixture called kieselguhr - absorbed the liquid perfectly. Since nitroglycerin is most dangerous to handle in its liquid form, the incident led Nobel to explore kieselguhr as a stabiliser for explosives. Ingeniously, Nobel developed a formula that allowed the explosive to be mixed with kieselguhr without hindering its power. He patented his product in 1867, naming it dynamite, which revolutionised construction practices and the creation of explosives.
Artificial sweeteners surely top the invention list for those of you with a sweet tooth. But do you know the story of how saccharin, one of the first sweeteners, came to be? Working in the lab of Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins University, Constantine Fahlberg discovered saccharin by chance in 1879 while synthesising other chemicals. As was the case with other accidental inventors, Fahlberg unknowingly carried some of his work home with him on his hands. While eating at home, he noticed that his bread tasted particularly sweet, even though no sugar had been added to his meal. Connecting the dots, Fahlberg realised that the sweetness originated from the substance he was working with in the lab. After running more tests on the strange, sugary substance, Fahlberg patented saccharin independently - a decision that angered Remsen, who had collaborated with Fahlberg to create the compound. Although Fahlberg's poor hygiene would be considered a nightmare for most lab practices today, his discovery expanded consumers' choices in the food industry. Years later, saccharin can be found in many products, including the popular artificial sweetener Sweet'N Low. Since saccharin is not metabolised by the body, it's virtually a non-calorie option. In reality, one gramme of the sweetener contains less than five calories, which is usually reported as zero, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards. Saccharin appeals to people looking to sweeten food without sugar, especially those living with diabetes - a condition in which sugar levels are already high in the bloodstream.
The Microwave Oven
Despite its usefulness, you may be surprised to learn that the microwave oven was developed by accident. We can thank Percy Spencer for discovering the microwave while inspecting a magnetron, or a type of tube that releases energy to power radar equipment. As a leading scientist during World War II, Spencer was visiting a lab at the Raytheon Company, when he noticed something strange while standing in front of the device. Believe it or not, the contents of Spencer's pocket got his attention: a candy bar stored there had melted. Spencer, on the other hand, didn't melt (thankfully!). We know today that prolonged exposure to microwaves - the waves, not the appliances - can be harmful to humans in certain circumstances. Looking for another food item to challenge the device with, Spencer decided corn kernels would do the trick. After his success with popcorn and other foods, Spencer invented another machine with similar technology, which gave rise to the microwaves we see today. Invented in 1945, the microwave is still a popular must-have for households more than 65 years later.
Wilson Greatbatch expressed an insatiable interest in circuitry and held revolutionary thoughts about how to fix naturally occurring problems in the human body. 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. In contrast to other scientists who used large and cumbersome gadgets to stimulate heart muscle, Greatbatch wanted to devise a smaller implant to get the job done. Though Greatbatch intended to create a machine to mend a broken heart, his moment of discovery may surprise you. While building an oscillator to record heart beat sounds in animals at Cornell University in 1958, he accidentally grabbed the wrong transistor and installed it in his device. Realising his mistake, Greatbatch was still curious to see what would happen. Not expecting the oscillator to work, he switched it on and heard a familiar, rhythmic pulsing sound - a pattern remarkably similar to a heart. By chance, his invention, known as the pacemaker, was ideal for pulsating signals to the heart. He tested his new creation on animals and fine-tuned the device before implanting it into a human in 1960. In recent years, Greatbatch has been lauded for his achievement - even if he discovered his solution by chance.
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