Accidental Discovery
All caused by accident...
Sometimes, accidents happen. But then there are times when a coincidence is just enough to create a scientific breakthrough, an amazing invention, an unprecedented discovery or something else that it's actually benefiting society.

It's a popular trope in comedy. A clumsy professor falls, drops something or makes a mistake, causing an unexpected discovery to occur. Just as often it's his bumbling assistant. Or just one of the protagonists, usually the stupid one. In some cases this accident turns out bad and causes a Freak Lab Accident. But in this case it actually turns out for the better! Another great scientific leap has been made and all due to something that seemed to be a mistake or an unintentional event.

This page is only for accidents that result in major discoveries or inventions in the field of science. For the cultural equivalent, see Accidental Art. Compare Eureka Moment and Miraculous Malfunction.


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  • Got Milk?: In this commercial, an executive with his mouth full for lack of milk accidentally gives Oreos their name!
  • Several commercials for Reeses Peanut Butter Cups from the 1980s, show somebody discovering how great chocolate and peanut butter taste together, but the discovery being disregarded for some reason:

     Comic Books  
  • A stock cliché in many comic books with an Absent-Minded Professor.
  • Nero: One story has boy genius Adhemar discover a miracle cure, but not any disease that would make it useful.
  • Bouncing Boy - from The Legion of Super-Heroes, naturally - got his powers this way. When he was a pre-teen, he worked as an errand boy for a Ditzy Genius scientist, and was told to deliver a new formula. On the way, he went to a sports arena to watch fighting robot gladiators, bought a soft drink, mistook it for the formula, and drank the formula by accident. (Unfortunately, he then proceeded to accidentally bounce onto the field, disrupting the event.)

  • Forrest Gump does this several times, though he never takes advantage of this himself.
    • His jerky movements due to his legs being in braces inspire Elvis Presley to invent his famous 'hip shaking'.
    • He unknowingly helps two advert men think up the "Smiley" and "Shit happens" bumper stickers.

     Video Games  
  • Star Control II: This is where the Thraddash got their patented Ree-unk Afterburner. Ree-unk was a mechanic working on a starship engine when he accidentally tossed his cigar into the fuel exhaust. He did not survive, but the resulting blast of fire and burst of speed greatly impressed those watching.

     Visual Novels  
  • In Steins;Gate, the greatest inventions our teenage wannabe Mad Scientist has come up with include a camera attached to a toy helicopter and a toy lightsaber made of a glowstick and a handle. Then, when trying to create a remotely-operated microwave, he and his friends create a functional time machine.

     Web Comic  
  • In The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!, Jean getting her lab experiment accidentally mixed up with Bob's jar of peanut butter in a Crash-Into Hello is what results in the creation of Molly the Peanut Butter Monster. This decidedly qualifies as a discovery because the event is replicable: a second creation of the mix by Jean's boss Dean Martin (without the knowledge of either Bob or Jean) duly results in another "monster", Galatea.

     Western Animation  
  • The Simpsons
    • In "Flaming Moe's", Homer discovers the "Flaming Homer" after accidentally adding Krusty-brand cough syrup to a hastily-made cocktail, and discovers "fire made it taste good" after ashes from his sister-in-law's cigarette fell into it.
    • "The Genesis Tub", a segment from Treehouse of Horror VII, had Lisa accidentally creating miniature life-forms by putting one of her teeth into a glass of cola.
  • "Sugar, spice, and everything nice... these were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girls. But Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction... Chemical X! Thus, The Powerpuff Girls were born!"
    • The episode "Oops, I Did It Again" has the Professor realizing that all his successful creations were accidental, and he ends up having a dream of what would be if the girls were created on purpose and as planned.

     Real Life  
  • Many big inventions, discoveries, and scientific breakthroughs were just stumbled upon by accident. Imagine how different thing would have been without them:
    • The prevailing academic consensus claims that Taoist alchemists in 9th Century China tried to create a potion of immortality using sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal; while the potion failed, they invented something very useful - gunpowder.
    • The Greek scientist Archimedes provided the world's most famous Eureka Moment when he was trying to find a way to check whether a golden crown his king received was genuine or fake? As he sat in his bath he noticed that the water level had risen because of his body displacing its water. This, of course, led him to the idea that a golden crown could be put under to determine its exact volume, then weighed, and its density calculated from there.
    • Isaac Newton is said to have discovered gravity when he was sitting beneath an apple tree and saw an apple hit the ground. Thus he understood that the Earth pulls objects to itself: the principle of gravity.
    • Christopher Columbus discovered America by accident. He was actually trying to find a passage way to India. Though that was more dumb luck: Columbus believed the Earth was far smaller than the scientific consensus of his time (which was pretty close to the real deal), and if America hadn't been there, the crew would have starved to death in the ocean.
    • Hans Lippershey was a lens smith in the Netherlands. One day, while he was comparing two lenses he held one of them behind the other and gasped as he saw a spider on his wall suddenly ten times as big as usual. He had discovered the principle of the telescope...
    • Percy Spencer was an American engineer who one day just walked in front of a magnetron, a vacuum tube used to generate microwaves, and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. This eventually led to the invention of the microwave oven.
    • Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral once found burrs clinging to his pants and to his dog's fur. On closer inspection, he found that the burr's hooks would cling to anything loop-shaped. By artificially re-creating the loops he invented the hook-and-loop fastener, AKA "Velcro".
    • In 1938, Roy Plunkett, a scientist with DuPont, was working on ways to make refrigerators more home-friendly by searching for ways to replace the current refrigerant, which was primarily ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and propane. After opening the container on one particular sample he'd been developing, Plunkett found his experimental gas was gone. All that was left was a strange, slippery resin that was resistant to extreme heat and chemicals. He had invented "Teflon".
    • Saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener, was accidentally discovered in 1879 by researcher Constantine Fahlberg after he forgot to wash his hands before lunch. He had spilled a chemical on his hands and it, in turn, caused the bread he ate to taste unusually sweet.
    • Play-Doh was accidentally invented in 1955 by Joseph and Noah McVicker while trying to make a wallpaper cleaner.
    • George Crum reportedly created potato chips in 1853 at Moon's Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York. Fed up with a customer who continuously sent his fried potatoes back, complaining that they were too soggy and sliced too thick, Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible, fried them in hot grease, then doused them with salt. Though according to, this is a legend. Crum's sister Katie Speck Wicks was the true inventor. Potato chips are still an example: she was frying crullers and peeling potatoes at the same time, and a thin slice of potato fell into the cruller frying oil. Crum was simply the one who ate it and thought it would be a good idea to make more of them, making him the first person to eat a potato chip.
    • Naval engineer Richard James was trying to develop a spring that would support and stabilize sensitive equipment on ships. When one of the springs accidentally fell off a shelf, it continued moving, and James got the idea for the Slinky toy.
    • Italian scientist Galileo Galilei thought up the idea that a pendulum could be useful to measure time by viewing the swinging motion of a chandelier in the Pisa cathedral. As he saw the chandelier making the same periodic movement over and over, he thought this would be the best way to keep up the time.
    • Charles Goodyear discovered vulcanized rubber when he accidentally dropped his rubber concoction on a hot stove. He saw a charred leather-like substance with an elastic rim, which would make rubber weatherproof.
    • While searching for a way to cure headaches, John Pemberton's lab assistant accidentally mixed carbonated water instead of fresh water with Pemberton's own mix between coca leaves and cola nuts. And thus Coca-Cola was born...
    • In 1896, French scientist Henri Becquerel was working on an experiment involving a uranium-enriched crystal. He believed that sunlight was the reason that the crystal would burn its image on a photographic plate. With dark clouds rolling in, Becquerel packed up his gear and decided to continue his research on another sunny day. Some days later, he retrieved the crystal from a darkened drawer, but the image burned on the plate (above) was, as he described, "fogged." The crystal emitted rays that fogged a plate, but were dismissed as weaker rays compared to William Roentgen's X-ray. Becquerel had discovered radioactivity.
    • Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, a turning point in medicine, completely by accident. (Or so the traditional story goes.) According to most accounts, including his own, in his laboratory in the basement of St Mary's Hospital in London (now part of Imperial College), Fleming noticed that a petri dish containing Staphylococcus that had been mistakenly left open was contaminated by blue-green mold from an open window, which formed a visible growth. There was a halo of inhibited bacterial growth around the mold. Fleming concluded that the mold released a substance that repressed the growth and caused lysing of the bacteria. After growing this substance in a culture of its own, he realized its true potential.
    • "Viagra" was discovered when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer developed a pill relieving chest pains, while producing an unexpected but great side effect....
    • A chemistry graduate student, Jamie Link, was working on a silicon chip when the chip shattered. She discovered (with the help of her professor) that the tiny bits of the chip were still sending signals, operating as tiny sensors. They coined the term "smart dust" for the small, self-assembling particles. Smart dust has myriad potential applications and plays a large role in attacking and destroying tumors. It's different from smart dust made from Nanomachines.
    • When Will Kellogg once accidentally left some boiled wheat sitting out, it had turned stale by the time he returned. Rather than throw it away, he and his brother John Harvey sent it through rollers, hoping to make long sheets of dough, but they got flakes instead. They toasted the flakes, which were a big hit with patients, and patented them under the name Granose. The brothers experimented with other grains, including corn, thus coining corn flakes.
    • During World War II, while attempting to create a synthetic rubber substitute, James Wright dropped boric acid into silicone oil. The result was a polymerized substance that bounced, but it took several years to find a use for the product. Finally, in 1950, marketing expert Peter Hodgson saw its potential as a toy, and renamed it Silly Putty.
    • Albert Hoffmann discovered LSD when he was actually trying to find a substance to treat migraine and bleeding after childbirth.
    • The prehistoric caves of Altamira in Spain were discovered by a group of children who were playing near its vicinity.
    • In 1856, 18 year old William Henry Perkin botched a college assignment to synthesize quinine due to impurities but while cleaning the flask with alcohol, he noticed the solution turned purple. By isolating the purple compound, he had created the first synthetic dye: and by sheer luck it was also purple, a color only obtained via a very rare natural dye and thus limited to royalty in those days.
  • In 1900, the Russian archaeologist Friedrich Zibold discovered the remains of a mysterious domed structure in the Byzantine Crimean site of Theodosia. After studying the ruins and some terracotta pipes found nearby, he proposed that the structure was an air well designed to condensate moisture from the air into water, and built a replica to test it. This replica was successful and became the precursor of modern air wells. However, it was discovered later that the ancient structure was actually a tomb, the pipes were not related to it, Zibold had used the wrong materials for his replica, and weather conditions at the time (which had included thick fog) had exaggerated the results of the experiment. But by sheer coincidence these materials were the right type to make a working air well—had Zibold used the real ones in the tomb his experiment would have been a failure—and had weather conditions been more characteristic of the area (not as much fog), it wouldn't have worked as well as Zibold reported it did. Neither of these problems were discovered until 90 years after Zibold's experiment. In other words, Zibold inadvertently invented a new technology as a result of a failed attempt to replicate a Lost Technology that didn't actually exist in the first place.