Ten Accidental Inventions That Changed the Modern World

When it comes to inventions they can sometimes come about when people are trying to make something completely different or when things go really wrong or when someone decides to start licking all the chemicals in their lab. What may be amazing is that some of the most life changing inventions of the 20th century were invented without the intention of the inventor at all, just mere twists of fate that revolutionized the modern world.

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Stainless Steel 1913

While there is some dispute about the true original inventor of stainless steel (men from both the United States and Germany have also laid claim to the title) most people attribute stainless steel to Harry Brearley. Harry Brearley was born in Sheffield, England in 1871. In 1908 he started working as the lead researcher at Brown Firth Laboratories. It was here that he would be given the assignment that would change his life and the cutlery industry forever. In 1912 he was given a task by a small arms manufacturer. They wanted a way to make their guns last longer because the current metal that they were using for the barrels of their guns were eroding away too quickly.

Harry Brearley struggled to find something that would work and began testing different steel alloys with different levels of chromium. While he never found a way to stop the metal from eroding, he did find a way to stop the metal from corroding. Some stories claim that he realized what he created after noticing that one piece of metal in his scrap pile remained shiny while the others rusted. Others state that it was more likely that when he attempted to etch his metal with nitric acid that he noticed the metal resisted the chemical. He then tested it with other chemicals and noticed that it was very resistant. He realized that while the metal would not work for the gun barrels it would work for cutlery.

His employers were not interested in the new steel so he approached a local cutler named R. F. Mosley. While the metal was indeed good for cutlery, Brearley struggled to get the material to produce adequate knife blades. He approached Ernest Stuart who was the Cutlery Manager at Mosley’s Portland Works and within a matter of weeks, Stuart found the perfect hardening process for knives. Thus, Stainless Steel was born.

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  • Michael Stevens

    What about the microwave oven? Seems like that might of changed the world a bit more than the slinky and the popsicle…

  • Dale Martin

    The Germans had plastic sword grips in 1889, and wood grips dipped in plastic at the same time. They never get credit for inventing these polymers before bakelite.

  • disqus_v3SHzvCspj

    Stainless steel not suitable for gun barrels? Quick, somebody tell Ruger, S&W, Colt, etc.

    • Stephanie Schoppert

      Stainless steel is good for gun barreld sure, in fact there are some claims from I believe the Germans, Swedes and Americans that they were the first toAmerican stainless steel for guns.
      But what Brearley made was resistant to corrosion and therefore good for cutlery. Not sure if he found that it was not resistant enough to erosion to make a gun barrel or if he just thought it would be more profitable for cutlery than guns. Obviously today stainless steel has improved and is even better for guns and other uses.