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Accidental Discovery

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"Name the greatest of all inventors. 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, Luck-Based Search Technique, Miraculous Malfunction, and Achievements in Ignorance.


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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:

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Heaven's Design Team, the designers often come up with many of the useful biological and physiological functions for their animals by throwing in random features on their project and finding a breakthrough here and there.
    • A lot of the unique behaviours of the sea otter (such as swimming on their backs, wrapping themselves in kelp while sleeping to keep from drifting away (and holding hands with each other when there are no kelp), using rocks to break shells to eat their food, etc.) aren't actually added by the designers, but springs from the creature's own adaptive capabilities as a poor swimmer that has developed a taste for seafood thanks to Jupiter feeding it urchins, lobster and the like during lunch.
    • When Jupiter and Neptune get into a design battle to develop the penguin, many of Jupiter's suggestion are just him doing the exact opposite of Neptune, but a lot of the features he come up with (such as the penguin's barbed tongue, its ability to thermoregulate, and using snot to excrete salt water after swimming) proves to be more feasible than Neptune's suggestions.
    • When given a request for "an animal that ages in reverse", and discussing the possible effects of reverse aging on the sustainability of the species as a whole, Saturn uses Mars's reverse-time accelerator on a horse and reverts it into its cell division phase to see if it can grow back into a horse. The reverted organism grows into a jellyfish-like blob because the cell's division is unable to replicate the horse's complex design. The team decides to use the jellyfish base to create something that would fulfill the client's order instead, since it's easy to form and has a lot of predators that would prevent its population from spiralling out of control. The result is the Turritopsis nutricula.
    • In Chapter 35, Pluto is helping the Plant Department to design a "carnivorous plant that eats something other than insects". She gets stuck with the project until Mercury and Jupiter's own "useless animal" project uses her plant prototype as a toilet, inspiring the trio to create a symbiotic relationship where the "useless" animal is beneficial to a poop-eating plant by being so lazy it simply craps into the plant it's eating off of.

    Comic Books 
  • Nero: One story has boy genius Adhemar discover a miracle cure, but not any disease that would make it useful.
  • Bouncing Boy — from 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.)

    Fan Works 
  • In A Game for the Fool, due to being barely being taught the very basics of cultivation when his parents died, Wei Wuxian unintentionally devises a powerful cultivation method based on the little information he knew about the original canon combined with the Video Game Mechanics of the System. It isn’t until Lotus Pier that he learns that he is ahead of most of his age mates and becomes the youngest person to have a Golden Core at age 10.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • Flubber:
    • Dr. Brainard admits that he invented his artificially intelligent robot sidekick Weebo by accident, and that even today he has no idea how Weebo achieved true intelligence and free will. Turns out Weebo had been doing research into her creation on her own, and managed to come up with a design that allowed Brainard to create a second intelligent robot.
    • Flubber itself was invented by accident. Brainard was trying to come up with a new kind of energy reactor, and instead got an (apparently alive) substance that can apparently increase its kinetic energy after bouncing off a surface.
  • Primer: The film starts with a group of nerds making computer parts out of their garage until deciding to try making a better cooling system for refrigerators. In the process they accidentally build an anti-gravity device which then leads to accidentally discovering it can be used for time travel.
  • Up the Chastity Belt: While attempting to cure Sir Coward's intoxication, Lurkalot mixes a medicine consisting of sulphur and charcoal, which then has saltpeter knocked into when he is not looking. When he tosses the resulting concoction on to the brazier, it explodes. Realising he has invented something significant, he names it 'gone powder' because it makes things 'gone'.

  • Ascendance of a Bookworm:
    • Myne finds out that trombe seeds are actually mana-altered taue fruits simply from picking a taue fruit for the first time and seeing it absorb her mana. It's implied that this was unknown before because commoners don't have the mana needed to change taue fruits into trombe seeds, while nobles don't participate in the yearly festival that involves handling taue fruits. The discovery is important because her best paper is made with young trombe branches and the only safe way to harvest them entails cutting them down as soon as they start growing.
    • The creation of the setting's first Talking Weapon happens that way. Rozemyne donates her mana to a manablade while thinking of giving it an attribute she associates with Ferdinand. When donating mana to a manablade turns out to be a more delicate operation than she realized, Ferdinand is called over to make sure she didn't mess things up and uses his own mana to examine it. The combination of Rozemyne and Ferdinand's contributions results in a weapon that speaks with Ferdinand's voice.
  • The Expanse: Solomon Epstein tinkered with a fusion drive in the hopes of making his private spacecraft more fuel efficient; he is killed when it turns out the device is much more powerful than he anticipated and the resultant g-forces render him unable to reach the control panel to turn it off. The discovery makes interplanetary travel common by reducing the amount of time required to weeks rather than years.
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The Weasley twins thought it would be a great joke shop product if they enchanted a hat with a shield charm so that they could trick their friends into jinxing them and have a laugh as it backfires. It wasn't until the Ministry of Magic, who's in the middle of a war, ordered 500 of them for their staff to wear that the two realized they had just invented wizard body armor, by accident, as a joke. This swiftly caused them to ditch the prank angle and just flat-out sell the hats (among other items like cloaks and gloves) as protective gear.
  • The Irregular at Magic High School:
    • The Yoshida clan know (from old records) that something called the "Crystal Eyes" is necessary to summon the god of oceans safely, but they don't know what the Eyes are. For about two hundred years, clan members searched through artifacts and Ancient Magician lore, and found nothing...until one of their heirs attended a school of modern magic, for his own reasons, and found that one of his classmates could see spirits.
    • Because MI (mental interference) magic is relatively new, the Yotsuba were unpleasantly surprised to find out that the power of a pregnant MI magician can influence her baby. So if an MI magician (or even just her twin) is feeling particularly vengeful through the fetus' development, the child born might be a Person of Mass Destruction. Oops.
    • The USNA government were ripping open a miniature black hole For Science! when the alien species that would later be called "the Parasites" came through it and started brainwashing everybody.
  • Reign of the Seven Spellblades: The underlying principle of the Second Spellblade, "Creumbra, the self-racing shadow", was discovered by accident when a mage tried to create a Doppelgänger of himself and caused a Reality-Breaking Paradox that blew up both him and everything for several miles around. Other mages copied his research and managed to reproduce the effect at a controllable level, resulting in an Unblockable Attack that disintegrates the opponent.
  • Tunnel in the Sky: Dr. Ramsbotham, inventor of the portals that enable instantaneous interstellar travel, was actually trying to build a time machine rather than a teleportation device. On his first successful test, he saw a jungle through the portal and, assuming he'd succeeded in reaching prehistoric times, armed himself and went through. He was immediately arrested for waving a firearm in a botanical garden a continent away.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Doctor Who story "The Green Death", Jo accidentally knocks over a jar of powdered fungus, spilling the contents onto some slides containing samples of tissue infected by a toxin carried by the giant maggots which feature prominently in the story. At first, Cliff Jones (a Nobel Prize-winning scientist turned eco-warrior with whom Jo has fallen in love) is annoyed that his work has been ruined, but when he looks at the slides later, he discovers that the tissue that was exposed to the fungus has died and realises that the fungus can cure the infection.
  • The Twilight Zone (1985): In "The Hunters", a young boy named Steve is walking through a field when he steps on an area of soft ground and falls through the earth. In the process, he discovers a prehistoric cave which has been undisturbed for 12,000 years. Dr. Klein later describes it as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the century.

  • In the Tamagotchi series, Professor Banzo discovered the Tamagotchi species of alien by pure chance while he was sulking on a bridge over a date going badly. A Tamagotchi UFO crashed into the river, and the Professor and his assistant Mikachu, who was there to help him cheer up, went to save the creatures from drowing. They then discovered that the aliens couldn't breathe in Earth's atmosphere, so they created little eggshell-like devices to keep them alive; since then, the two have been researching the Tamagotchis, going as far as to visit their planet in their studies.

    Video Games 

    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 Comics 
  • 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.
  • In Drive (Dave Kellett), Senior Adviser Cuddow describes the greatest breakthrough made by his people, the Fillipods, in the war against the Vinn (an artificial form of The Virus), as a silly, accidental invention.
    Cuddow: We were actually looking for new ways to pop popcorn!

    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.
      • It's implied Bart helped contribute by accidentally zapping it with static electricity.
    • Another Treehouse of Horror segment had Homer accidentally invent a time machine whilst trying to repair a toaster.
  • "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 things 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 original "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 have the same process repeated with a real gold crown, thus finding out whether the first crown was all gold.
    • Isaac Newton was prompted to thinking about why objects always fall down after seeing an apple fall from a tree, and this concluded with the Law of Universal Gravitation.
    • Sir Frederick William Herschel discovered infrared radiation when he was trying to measure the temperature of different colors of sunlight divided by a prism, using the dark space past red as a control. When the "control" thermometer showed the greatest temperature rise, he reportedly said "That's odd."
    • Christopher Columbus discovered America by accident. He was actually trying to find a passageway 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; this is why no one was willing to fund the voyage until he managed to convince the similarly ignorant queen of Spain.
    • 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 find new ways to market a wallpaper cleaner that had been sold since 1933 (and was the Hail Mary that saved the soap company from going under) but had become obsolete thanks to vinyl wallpaper, after noticing children were using it like clay to make their own sculptures. Inspired by a teacher's arts and crafts product in a newspaper, they began selling multicolored versions of the wallpaper cleaner. Within a year, Play-Doh sales outpaced Kutol's wallpaper cleaner and within ten years, the original wallpaper cleaner was no longer sold but Play-Doh continued to live on.
    • 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, only to find the customer loved them. An alternate version of the tale attributes the invention of the potato chip to Crum's sister, Katie Speck Wicks, who dropped some potato peelings into a pot of cooking oil she was heating up to make fritters.
    • A popular story involving the origin of Nashville Hot Chicken goes that the woman who made it created the dish as payback for her husband cheating on her. The result was he found the meal delicious.
    • 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.
    • Pfizer was working on a drug called Sildenafil, which was intended to be used as a medication to relieve angina (chest pains). As it happened, Sildenafil wasn't very effective at relieving angina. However, it did cause erections in men who took it. Pfizer then marketed the drug as a cure for The Loins Sleep Tonight, under the brand name "Viagra".
    • 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.
    • A young shepherd in Israel was throwing stones into caves when one of them hit what sounded like a clay jar. Investigations into the caves led to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
    • 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, mauveine. The fact that it was purple was also a case of great luck since it could only be obtained via a very rare natural dye and thus was limited to royalty in those days.
    • Bubble Wrap was invented as a three-dimensional wallpaper, but never caught on. Later the inventors found out they could sell it as protective packaging.
    • Tea Bags were "invented" when New York merchant Thomas Sullivan, in order to cut costs, sent tea samples in silk bags instead of metal containers, so his customers would take the tea out of the bag and brew it. They instead dunked the whole bag into the water, and a new way to make tea was born.
  • 4chan (of course) accidentally made a major breakthrough in a decades-old mathematical formula when an anonymous user posted his proof on /sci/. What was the proof for, you might ask? He was trying to figure out the shortest possible amount of time it would take to watch the first 14 episodes of Haruhi Suzumiya in every possible permutation, or what is the shortest superpermutation of of 14 symbols. Mathematicians had found an equation for calculating the shortest possible length of superpermutation, but it wouldn't give the correct answer for superpermutations with greater than 5 symbols. The anonymous poster found and proved that a new equation that they found would give a much closer result for higher numbers.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


The Seventh Spellblade

"Arise". Nanao gets behind rogue upperclassman Vera Miligan and charges to attack, only for "Snake-Eye" to reveal she has an ace in the hole: a second basilisk eye embedded in the palm of her left hand. With no other option, Nanao wills her blade to strike faster than the light from the eye itself, cutting space and time itself to sever Miligan's hand before the attack can reach her (shown as the camera lens cracking). Oliver explains in a voiceover that, in the lore of the series, such an unblockable strike, executed within the "one step, one spell" distance, is known as a "spellblade" -- and furthermore, this one is entirely unknown to the world of magic. Like many of her other strange abilities, Nanao herself has no clear idea how she did it and is unable to subsequently reproduce the feat.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / UnblockableAttack

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