Some of the most important discoveries were made completely on accident. In fact, in some instances, the people making the discovery had set out to discover something completely different.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
Brittany: So, we have talked a lot about failing. I think we love failing probably more than most people.
Connor: Especially those little YouTube videos where you get to watch people fall over when they’re skateboarding and failing. I guess I enjoy people’s misery as well.
Brittany: I was going to say, you’re laughing at people falling.
Connor: Laughing with them, not at them.
Brittany: Well, different kinds of failing we’re going to talk about today. But still, I will admit I laugh at that too. But there are so many lessons we can learn when we fail. If you’re on a skateboard, even you can learn not to do whatever it was you did that time, though I was never someone that skateboarded, that’s probably going to shock you. So, I’m sure some of that failing is just you’re going to fail.
Connor: Wait you were an emo back in the day, like an emo girl and you never skateboarded.
Brittany: No, we didn’t. I didn’t skateboard. We just listened to music and cried in my bedroom. That’s what Emo kids did. But I love this quote from National Treasure. I think it is a real quote from Thomas Edison, which is an interesting side note, because we’re going to have another episode about Thomas Edison in a few episodes, and it’s not going to be very positive. So, Thomas Edison, was the inventor of the light bulb, and he tried to make a light bulb. I think it was like 2000 times. And when people said like, oh, he failed 2000 times, he said, no, I didn’t. I discovered 2,000 ways not to make a light bulb. And I’ve always really liked that quote. And whether it really is Thomas Edison or is just Nicholas Cage in what is I think the greatest movie of all time, national Treasure making it up. I think it’s a great quote either way. So, today kind of going on Edison rather than skateboarder’s lesson, I want to talk about some inventions, some failures that started off as different discoveries or they were supposed to be different discoveries and then ended up in discoveries that changed our entire world. So, they would’ve been failings failures of these scientists. And then as it turned out, they actually may have done something better than the original thing was going to be. So, Connor, I thought you and I could kind of go back and talk about some of ’em. I’m actually going to start, actually, no, we’ll save that one for the end. We’ll save that one for the end. I’ve got a silly one that is not really life-changing, but is one of my favorite foods, but right.
Connor: Stick around to the end.
Brittany: You’ll have to stick around for the end. It’s a teaser. Alright, so let’s start with penicillin, which if anyone doesn’t know what penicillin is an antibiotic and that is something you get. I don’t think they can’t give it for colds, but if you get strep throat, if you get an ear infection, if you get probably I think tonsillitis, it completely eradicates the illness. And we kind of take advantage of this because we get this stuff all the time. I think amoxicillin is probably the one that’s given out more today.
Connor: Cillins, yeah.
Brittany: The cillins. That’s a good way to say it. And this was huge because back in the day they didn’t have this. So if you got sick, you were going to either stay sick for a long time or you could even die because they just didn’t have the medical breakthroughs to help with this. So, penicillin was easily, probably one of the most important inventions of it was the 19th century, I think. And so that cap happened completely by accident. And this is good trivia. I have done so many trivia games where this question has come up. So, remember this for later. His name was Sir Alexander Fleming, and he went out of town. He was doing some experiments with the influenza virus, the flu, but then he decided to go out of town. He went on a little holiday and he comes back and he’s like, oh, my lab is a mess. Oh my goodness. There’s mold everywhere, which I guess is a scientist that happens when you have your little Petri dishes, which is what they’re called, where you grow all sorts of bacteria and mold and he noticed that there was mold, but it was kind of a different mold pattern than he had seen before. So he’s like, okay, this is interesting. So he puts it under the microscope, which is, think of telescopes, things like that. But it zooms in really close to cells or I dunno if it’s a cell like germs or I don’t know if you ever had one of those when you were a kid, but we used to look at bugs under microscopes. You can see really, really tiny things. So, he finds this mold and he realizes that this mold can actually kill other bacteria and it can be given to small animals without them getting sick. And here’s one part I love about this. I think this happens a lot when we talk about science throughout history and that is people downplayed the discovery. People were like, okay, that’s nice. You discovered some bacteria. Good job for you. All right, next thing. But people didn’t realize that this was going to be one of the most important discoveries. It wasn’t until, so he discovered this in 1929, and it wasn’t until 1945 when different scientists came back to his studies and started perfecting it that this was noticed and it was given a Nobel Prize. And people were like, oh, this is pretty amazing. We can put this in bottles and we can give this to people to help cure all their ailments. So, really interesting because one, it was a complete accident. It ended up changing the world, but he didn’t get credit for it right away. So, I think that’s kind of an interesting little thing. And I’ll do one more Connor. Oh, okay. You go. Did you have a comment?
Connor: No, go ahead.
Brittany: Yeah, just one more. Not that interesting of a story. That’s why I want to get it out of the way now. But plastic was also an accident, and there was this Belgian scientist named Leo, I think it was Baekeland. And I like this part because he did accidentally discover this new plastic material, but he just wanted to call it backend, which I thought was funny, was blight, because I was like, what would I name something that I discovered? Would I name it after myself? I probably wouldn’t. But I thought it was funny that he did. So, it was a mixture of formaldehyde, which is how do you explain formaldehyde? It preserves things. If you ever have to dissect a frog in school, which I had to, I don’t know if they still do that, but I had to.
Connor: It’s really smell.
Brittany: It’s really smelly. But they have to soak the frogs in formaldehyde because it preserves them so that you can.
Connor: Don’t use upper human cadavers too, my wife used to take anatomy classes and they would look at corpses and stuff like that, and it was all formaldehyde.
Brittany: They’re supposed to do that in college. It freaks me out. Yeah. But yes, it’s that same thing, and it’s a really specific smell. It just smells so bad. So, he took that and something called phenol, and it was again, a complete accident. They mixed together and they created plastic, which plastic, I mean, I can’t even think to name even a handful of things that plastic has changed in the world because think about when our grandparents probably, I dunno, when did plastic become mass produced?
Connor: A long time ago.
Brittany: A long time ago. But I mean medical equipment.
Connor: Oh yeah. Or 3D printing. I mean, the fact that you can now design things and immediately create them in your home and either go use them or that becomes the model for what you want to have metal parts designed just, yeah, plastic is in everything. I’m literally standing in front of this whole microphone rig that’s like, I mean, there’s some metal, but a ton of plastic plastic’s just everywhere. It’s crazy.
Brittany: Packaging too. And I know there’s some debate because there are chemicals and plastic obviously as we’re reading about it is chemicals. But I mean, packaging for food has gone down in cost because things used to be, there was a lot of tin, a lot of more expensive ways to package things glass. So plastic has been huge and changed the world. So, yeah, I’ll kick it over to you now, Connor.
Connor: Yeah, I’ve got a fun one to share. That’s also kind of a silly accident. So, there’s all these big companies in the United States that provide the US government with devices, equipment, machines, with vehicles specially used for the military. And so these big companies are always competing for contracts with the government. They want to be paid billions of dollars or whatever to produce these things that the government needs or with NASA. And so rather than NASA building a space shuttle, they’ll hire a whole bunch of private companies to do it for them. And so NASA’s in charge and the one paying for everything, but there’s all these big companies out there. Well, one of these companies is called Raytheon.
Brittany: We don’t like them.
Connor: A lot of these companies, basically, build bombs and missiles, and they’re part of what we not so affectionately call the military-industrial complex because one of the big problems is the former Secretary of Defense in charge of the military when he leaves the government, he’ll go work for Boeing or Raytheon or Halliburton or these different companies. And so this is a concept for the kids out there. It’s called a revolving door. And so what that means, you think, you go through those big hotels and there’s that door at the front that just goes around and around and around, that’s a revolving door. And so the problem with these big companies when they get close to the government is that the top leadership becomes a revolving door. They’ll be the president of Raytheon, and now they’re the Assistant Secretary of Defense. Well, of course, when they’re in the government, they’re going to give all these big contracts to their buddies and their former coworkers, and it just becomes this really messy thing. So, anyways, this is all backdrop to say that at Raytheon, back in the 1940s, they were working on these magnetron tubes. This was World War II, and they’re inventing all these different devices and trying to figure out how to create better planes and ships and submarines and everything else. And so Raytheon was working with magnetron tubes, basically like radiation waves and magnets and so forth. And they were specifically doing this for radar. They were trying to be able to detect planes flying in the sky so they could find when the enemy was flying towards them. And so there was this engineer at the company, one of the employees, his name was Percy Spencer, and he was working on these tubes standing next to them. And I don’t know if he was tweaking one or maintaining it or whatever, but he’s standing next to it. And he noticed that in his pocket, in his shirt pocket, he had a candy bar and it was starting to melt as a result of it’s room temperature. But all of a sudden he’s got this squishy candy bar in his pocket. And so what he realized is that it was the microwaves, the radiation waves that were melting because he was being exposed to basically that radiation. Now, this is safe radiation within these microwaves. It’s not like when you go to the doctor to get an MRI and they have you wear the lead apron to make sure that your body doesn’t get all these radiation waves. The microwaves are kind of what they say. They’re micro, they’re very kind of minuscule. So, it was safe for him to stand next to this machine, but he basically discovered that warm food, you could cook food as a result of these microwaves. And so he developed this box for cooking where he would use this magnetron radiation kind of technology, create it a little bit smaller so it could fit in a box. And then he tested this out. And sure enough, when you put food inside the box and then you radiate it with microwave energy, it would cook. So, the microwaves that we all, I mean, I think of grandma back in the day and she’d say, oh, honey, I made you supper and you’re homework late from work. I put it in the oven just so it would try and stay warm a little bit longer because then you didn’t have good options to reheat things. You’d have to put it back on the stove. And you can’t do that with lots of types of foods. And so microwaves are just phenomenal in terms of their convenience. But here it was, a dude with a candy bar accidentally discovered something that’s revolutionized the world. Pretty cool.
Brittany: Yeah. Connor, I’m actually going to have you do the next one, and I’m going to do the last two. I’m picking the ones I like the best.
Connor: Oh, fine. Okay. Well, I like this story anyway, so I’ll take it. So, this is the strike match. So, we have to go all the way back to 1826 for this one, which is, man, it was a long time ago, almost 200 years, there was this guy named John Walker, and he noticed that there’s this dried lump on the end of a stick, and it’s, while he was stirring a mix of chemicals, he’s kind of mixing some chemicals up. And so he’s like, what is this lump? Yeah, it was like this lump that shouldn’t have been there. So he goes to scrape it off, and all of a sudden there were sparks and then a flame. And so he realizes, well, oh, wait a minute. This is a way to create friction matches. And so they sold them these stores all over the place in pharmacies, the initial matches, they were made of cardboard, but he soon replaced them with these long little wooden splints. I mean, the familiar matches that we have today. They would come in a box, they would have the little piece, a piece of sandpaper on the side for striking. And what’s interesting is that some folks were telling him to patent his invention, to basically get a patent from the government to say, Hey, no one’s allowed to copy you. And if they do, then they have to pay you money. He decided not to because he considered his product these strike matches. He considered a benefit to mankind. He saw that this would improve people’s lives. I mean, again, 200 years ago, this is the pioneer era. And so people are having to start fires and they’re living out on the prairie and little house on the prairie type stuff. And so how amazing is that? I think of Tesla. We’ve talked about Elon Musk. We share his story in the Tuttle Twins Guide to Inspiring.
Brittany: And we’re talking about Tesla just a couple of episodes too.
Connor: And teaser. And so what’s cool about them? So here’s the little teaser for that is they’ve basically open-sourced their car designs. What that means is open source, it means they’re not patenting it. They’re not saying, Hey, we want the government to punish you if you make these cars. They’re saying the opposite. Tesla’s like, Hey, look, we’re making these cars, but we think it’s so important to do electric vehicles that we want everyone else to be able to do it too. So, here’s the designs that we created, all the money that went into that, the time, the effort, and they decided to just make it for free. If any other company out there thinks that they can do it better than Tesla, they’re literally saying, here you go. And so I see that kind of story here with John Walker in the strike matches is that rather than him trying to protect it, he saw that this would benefit people, and they totally have. So, kind of cool that he was just stirring some chemicals, and then he discovered the right substances and compounds that would allow him to create these little matches. Pretty fun.
Yeah, I love that story. So we’ll do two real quick. The next one is gunpowder. And the reason I like this one is because the guy who discovered it was trying to discover how to become immortal and live forever. That was his goal. Instead, he accidentally mixed this new thing he discovered with sulfur, and it became gunpowder. Gunpowder, as destructive as it is, is a crazy invention because think of all the wars that were fought in different ways because of gunpowder and just, again, a lot of destruction. But just, I’m trying to think what else we use gunpowder for. I can only think of cannons and guns, but I know there’s other things.
Connor: They’ll use it in. For example, I was, where were we? We were on vacation recently driving through this mountain, and they would use dynamite and TNT gunpowder, they would drill holes into the rock and they would throw the explosives down there, and then blow up the rock. And that’s what allowed them to build roads through mountains. So, when you need to destroy a lot of stuff like that, like land and everything, it can help too.
Brittany: And last one, this is what I love, potato chips. So, potato chips were an accident, and it was actually a prank. There was this restaurant George “Crum” Speck, and he was really irritated with this wealthy patron who would come in and eat all the time at his restaurant, and he’d always send back the fries because he was like, these are too thickly cut. I don’t like them. Or they weren’t even called french fries back then. They were just thickly cut, like French-style potatoes with much longer names. So, this cook gets really irritated with this guy. So, as a prank, he cuts them, he cuts the potatoes ridiculously thin like a chip, and then overcooks them and puts a ton of salt on ’em to be like, this will show you. Turns out he loved them. So, did all the other patrons, and it became something that was ordered all the time.
Connor: That’s funny.
Brittany: So, those are accidental discoveries for this episode.
Connor: What I love, and we’ll wrap up here, is that innovation is not always the product of hard work and deep thinking. Sometimes your life circumstances are such that these different ideas or things happen and you’re like, oh, hey, here’s an opportunity. The Tuttle twins itself, it wasn’t that I sat down and said, oh, how could we do this? It was just that I had a problem. I went on Amazon looking for kids’ books. I’m like, oh, hey, here’s an opportunity. And I kind of stumbled into it. So, a lot of life is just being responsive to those serendipitous moments, those circumstances that just kind of happen, and that’s fun. I think that makes life a lot of fun. We have to be open to that and prepared to kind of take action and jump on these opportunities because they’ll come throughout our lives. So, thanks for chatting, Brittany. Great topic as always. Guys, remember the podcast is at Tuttletwins.com/podcast. If you’ve been listening for a while, we’ve been doing this Britt for quite a while now which is kind of fun, and we’ve got over a million downloads and all these fun statistics. We should probably share more at some point.
Brittany: I’d love, yeah.
Connor: What I was going to say though is that guys, if you’ve been listening to us for a while, go over to Apple Podcasts or to Spotify, leave us a review. We would love to hear what you think about the podcast, what you like, and what your favorite parts are, just because that helps get the word out to even more families. The whole reason we do this is to reach and teach millions of kids and families. And so you guys can help a little bit just by leaving a review. Share your thoughts. That’ll tell the algorithm, Hey, go share this with other people. So really appreciate it. Tuttletwins.com/podcast and we’ll see you on the next episode. See you, Brittany.
Brittany: Talk to you later.