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.


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.


  • Michael Stevens

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

    • Blake Easley

      These were accidental inventions

      • matthewkmiller

        And so was the microwave. Ever hear about the scientist who discovered a chocolate bar melted when he walked in front of an active radar dish?

        • Richard Akins

          A true scientist would have known better than to walk in front of an active radar dish. More likely to discover death.

          • Richard R Solberg

            Wrong, have heard of Air force mechs using radar to warm up with .

          • Richard Akins

            Okay, just because one can “warm up” by gathering around the exhaust of waste heat from the power supply does not make it the least bit safe to place any part of your body into the extremely powerful radio frequency (rf) energy waves that travel from the travelling wave amplifier tube, Klystron tube or other electron pump device out through the wave guide to the transmitting antenna and for considerable distances (hundreds of meters) outward from the parabolic antenna dish or other engineered director/reflector. This is why most high power directional antenna systems have radomes on them, in addition to keeping the weather off the antenna, the radome also keeps the birds out of the most hazardous part of the radiation beam. You should stay away from any radar installation if you are that technically ignorant. We had a tech who forgot to shut the system down, opened and reached inside the wave guide between the travelling wave amplifer tube and the dish. It had about 5 KW rf in it. Cooked his arm. I think he later died of cancer at an early age.

          • Larry

            While the Essex was in Boston, the TACAN at Logan airport was interfering with TV reception, so a radarman went to CIC, and lit off the air-search for a couple of rotations………no more TACAN interference…..

        • Aarron Canino

          Yeah. Have you heard it’s urban legend?

  • 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.

    • Steve C

      The Grips would have been Celluloid. which is much older than Bakelite. It was invented in England and America, not Germany.

      • Dale Martin

        Actually it was polystyrene, not celluloid. It was forgotten for a long time and then re-discovered by some chemists in America. The same product is sold today as a tool handle plastic dip, with some minor changes, that is; it is more flexible than the German formula….I have dozens of German Swords and Sabers from the era before WW I with this plastic dip on the grips….

  • 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.

    • Thomas Nordby

      Some Stainless Steel is not suitable for firearm barrels. It doesn’t say all Stainless Steel. Just the stuff He cam up with. And only that is didn’t do what the manufactures wanted it to. Not erode.

    • Richard R Solberg

      It took awhile to find the right alloy , SS has many types from stuff that is very resistant to corrosion and a bitch to machine to easy and not that that stainless.. Just like carbon steels .. Had a early S&W 38 sp. was strong enough to easily stand up to 357 mag. use . S&W no longer uses that alloy just to expensive and hard to machine .

  • svlemur

    You forgot Chicken Tikka Masala. Supposedly, a cook in Scotland accidently spilt some tomato sauce and created the UK’s national dish.

    • Craig Gilley

      Wouldn’t exactly call that one a world changer though, eh?

    • Kurchatov

      it is an Indian dish..

      • Aarron Canino

        Actually tiki masala is NOT Indian. It is a bad British knockoff of curry that is not eaten in India. If you’re gonna correct people, at least be right.

  • Tom

    I think that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident. One of his bacterial cultures was contaminated with a mold that produced penicillin – and inhibited bacterial colonies from growing nearby.

  • Tom

    While trying to perfect his lightbulb in 1883, Thomas Edison discovered that if he put filaments inside a glass bulb with a vacuum inside, the electrical current would jump across the filaments through the vacuum. Edison was a practical man, not a scientist, and couldn’t conceive of any use for this bit of interesting scientific discovery – Edison’s only contribution to science which was called the Edison Effect. But, being Edison, he carefully noted what he’d done and patented it.

    20 years later, that would become the vacuum tube – one of the primary components of the radio prior to the creation of the transistor.

  • Larry

    How did Slinky change the world?