18 Nov 2018 Primary Science, STEAM / STEM


What do Super Glue, Play-Doh, microwave ovens and crisps have in common? Everyday items but also chance discoveries, here are a few accidental inventions that we wouldn’t want to be without!


It was 1928 and Alexander Fleming was experimenting with bacteria before setting off on holiday. When he returned, he discovered a green mould in the petri dishes. Strangely, bacteria had continued to grow, except in the areas where the mould had formed. After isolating the mould for further investigation, the lucky discovery was penicillin, which works by preventing bacteria from forming new cell walls.

Fleming had worked in battlefield hospitals in France in World War I, a war in which 18 percent of fallen soldiers died from bacterial pneumonia. This had fallen to less than 1 per cent in World War II. Just one amazing benefit of the one of the most important chance discoveries of the twentieth century.


It was goodbye to stirring lumpy porridge when engineer Percy Spencer made a surprise discovery. In 1945, working on a radar related project, Spencer discovered that a bar of chocolate had melted in his pocket. He began to experiment with microwave radiation on other foodstuffs such as eggs and popcorn and before long he had developed the first microwave oven. Fortunately for us, they have become somewhat smaller over the years – the first one stood at almost 1m 70 cm!


Back in 1907 electric wires were usually insulated with shellac (from an Asian beetle) to make them safe. Belgian Chemist, Leo Baekeland, while looking for a cheaper alternative, accidentally created plastic. He called the material Bakelite; it was non-conductive, heat resistant and could be produced in any colour and moulded into almost any shape.


Who would have thought that Play-Doh was originally invented back in the 1930s to clean coal from wallpaper! The company were heading for bankruptcy but were saved when one of the workers noticed the cleaner being used by children to make Christmas decorations! The cleanser was removed and colour and scent added to make Play-Doh, beloved by children ever since.


And finally … writing this in Derbyshire how could we resist a bit of food technology? The story has it that back in the 1800s, a cook at a local inn was asked to make a jam tart. Instead of stirring the egg and almond paste mixture into the pastry, she mistakenly spread it on top of the tart. The result? The delicious Bakewell Pudding that we certainly wouldn’t be without today!

OK, this is probably the stuff of legend, but crisps, cornflakes, chewing gum, saccharine, Coca Cola and chocolate chip cookies are all there in the list of accidental inventions.

And if you want to find out about more accidental inventions, let’s not forget safety glass, the slinky, post-it notes, matches, pacemakers, x-rays, gunpowder, superglue, Velcro, Teflon …the list goes on!