Yugoslavian journalist Dejan Stojanovic once said, “Accidents are not accidents but precise arrivals at the wrong right time.” In this unpredictable world, no amount of planning or foresight can prevent accidents—and aren’t we lucky for that? Some of the most remarkable discoveries, realizations, improvements and technological advances came by mistake. The following are among the finest accidents ever committed.
In 1999, Americans watched in shock as World War II veteran and former presidential candidate Bob Dole went on national television and entered a new term into the American lexicon: erectile dysfunction. Dole was the spokesman for Viagra, which enjoyed the highest initial sales of any prescription drug launch in history. Viagra was discovered by accident in 1992 when Pfizer scientists developed UK92480, a drug they hoped would relax blood vessels in angina patients. When they exposed it to penile tissue from an impotent man, they realized they had accidentally put the blood flow back in countless romantic relationships.
With the European discovery of the New World at the end of the Middle Ages, the shipping industry exploded: supplying the new colonies with familiar European goods became big business. One of the largest exports was wine. Shippers realized that by boiling off some of the water, the wine was reduced in volume to a sweeter, more viscous syrup, of which they could ship far more at the same cost. They believed that if the colonists added the right amount of water back, it would reconstitute the substance into wine. That didn’t work, but the product they sent, brandy, or burnt wine, was a hit. It is still one of the most popular after-dinner drinks in the world.
The lifeblood of the psychedelic movement, the powerful hallucinogen LSD was tripped over accidentally in 1943 by Professor Albert Hoffman, who had been trying to synthesize ergot, a fungus that attacks grain, which had been used for years in folk medicine. After accidentally ingesting one variation, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25, Hoffman reported peculiar physical and mental sensations. He returned to the lab and took what is now known to be a massive dose and went on the world’s first acid trip. Twenty-four years later, The Beatles wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
In 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming was moments away from throwing away the greatest discovery in the history of medicine. While researching bacteria, Fleming accidentally left one of the cultures out overnight. He was about to throw it away until he realized that some mold that had formed on the petri dish was eating the original bacteria. His discovery, penicillin, saved the lives of countless millions by arming doctors with a miracle cure. Before Fleming’s accident, minor injuries led to infections and deaths that doctors were helpless to prevent.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus “discovered” America—which of course was news to the millions of people who already lived there. His legendary voyage closed the door on the Middle Ages and thrust Europe into an age of discovery and Renaissance. The catch? He was trying to sail to India. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, land travel to the East became far more precarious for Europeans. Seeking a sea route to the lucrative East, Columbus’ discovery ushered in an era of wealth, prosperity and good fortune—except for the “Indians.”