British artist and musician Brian Eno is known for, among other things, the phrase, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”

It’s an adage that can be applied not only to the arts, but to the sciences as well.

In fact, some of the most common devices in our modern lives started out as mistakes.

“Wired” magazine’s Lucas Graves recently compiled a list of some of the most common accidental inventions, and we asked several local residents to discuss how those inventions have impacted their lives.

“Back when LSD was legal, you could buy it from Sandoz Pharmaceutical, where it had been invented,” said Tahlequah artist Murv Jacob, speaking about lysergic acid diethylamide, a psychedelic drug accidentally invented by Sandoz chemist Albert Hofmann while working with rye mold to develop a cure for migraine headaches.

Hofmann was, of course, the first person to ever take LSD, or “acid,” as it came to be known. His invention is credited with helping, in at least a small part, to make the counter-culture 1960s everything those who lived through the decade don’t remember it as being – if that makes sense.

(Hofmann, by the way, celebrated his 100th birthday in January.)

“We accidentally discovered LSD, too,” Jacob said. “But the LSD you got before it was made illegal was the real thing. After about 1966 or ‘67, I tried it a time or two, and it just wasn’t the same.”

Jacob (and probably a lot of other baby-boomers) also has fond memories of another chance discovery: Silly Putty.

It was invented in the early ‘40s when General Electric scientist James Wright mixed boric acid and silicon oil while working on an artificial rubber compound. As Graves pointed out in his “Wired” article, comic strip image-stretching practically became a national pastime.

“I do like stretching out newspaper comic strips with Silly Putty,” said Jacob. “But LSD was good for that, too.”

Another common element of American life that was invented accidentally in 1853 is the humble potato chip. Evidently, a customer complaining to chef George Crum about fries that were cut too thick inspired the vengeful side of Crum, who cut a potato paper-thin and fried it to a crisp.

“I never thought about life without potato chips; that’s almost too hard to comprehend,” said NSU art instructor Mike Brown. “How would you feed your family if you couldn’t serve them potato chips with their sandwiches? What would you feed them, a sandwich and shrimp? It’s almost impossible to imagine.”

Another hard-to-imagine-life-without substance is vulcanized rubber, which was invented by Charles Goodyear in 1844 when he fortuitously dropped a compound of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove.

“Where would we be without vulcanized rubber?” pondered Brown. “I mean, literally, where would we be? It takes us everywhere [in the form of automobile tires]. Just think – without vulcanized rubber, there wouldn’t be a NASCAR.”

Several inadvertent inventions are related to medical fields, including X-rays, penicillin, and Viagra.

“They were actually messing around with radioactive material and noticed some shadows,” Dr. Randall Turner said of the invention of X-rays, which are credited to German scientist Wilhelm Rontgen.

“They put two and two together, came up with 12, and realized the radiation was absorbed differently by different substances.”

Penicillin, Turner said, was the result of some petri dishes – used by scientists to grow bacteria and other microorganisms – that weren’t quite as clean as they should’ve been.

“Penicillin is actually a mold which grows in a lot of places, but it’s usually associated with bread,” he said. “Mold is in competition with bacteria for food.”

In 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming accidentally left a petri dish of staphylococcus bacteria uncovered for a few days. When he finally noticed his screw-up, he also noticed some mold growing in the dish.

Fortunately – for those of us who aren’t allergic to penicillin – Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were interested enough in Fleming’s faux pas to follow up on it, and in 1945 received a Nobel prize for turning it into an antibiotic.

The libido-enhancing effects of Viagra were discovered in the Welsh hamlet of Merthyr Tydfil. In 1992, men in the town who were taking the drug on a trial basis to determine its effect on angina (a restriction of blood flow to the heart) discovered that, regardless of what it did to their hearts, it definitely had an effect on other parts of their bodies.

“That’s interesting,” said Turner. “Because Viagra can actually exacerbate angina, and make it worse.”

Evidently, while the drug may increase blood flow to some organs, it restricts it to others – like the heart.

The fellows in Merthyr Tydfil probably didn’t care.

Aspartame may not be a medicine, but it was invented accidentally during medical research at Searle Laboratories. Two other sugar substitutes – cyclamate and saccharin – were also invented accidentally.

So was the microwave oven.

Jason Bowles sees a connection.

“I confess to using artificial sweeteners and microwaves at least as much as the next American,” he said. “But, have you noticed stuff that’s invented accidentally is usually found to be destructive to your health? There’s probably a reason a lot of this stuff wasn’t invented on purpose.”


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