More on Discoveries by Luck and Chance

History is full of how luck, chance and timing helped a good idea or new product become successful. Some examples

1. Penicillin

In 1928, Scottish researcher, Sir Alexander Fleming, accidentally found penicillin. He was returning from a holiday when he found some mould growing on a plate which had been left open. This mould inhibited the growth of bacteria and contained a substance (penicillin notatum), which is now the most widely-used antibiotic in the world. In 1929, Fleming published his findings but did not pursue the topic. Luckily, in the 1940s, a team of researchers at Oxford University found Fleming's article and started experimenting with penicillin.

2. Female Eunuch

This book helped popularise the Women's Liberation Movement starting in the 1970s (see section on "how one person can make a difference"). The author Germaine Greer, wrote the book because she was interested in the topic and had no idea that it would become a worldwide bestseller and basis for a worldwide movement.

3. Kellogs

Kellog's cornflakes was produced by accident when iftrying to develop an alternative and healthy form of bread by rolling wheat. It produced a sticky doughy mess which was normally thrown away. Somehow some was not thrown away and became mouldy. It was rolled a second time and produced large thin flakes of wheat that were crisp and tasty after being oven baked.

4. Lindt

Rudolph Lindt invented the "conche" in the late 19th century. Conche is a surface scraping mixer and agitator that evenly distributes cocoa butter within chocolate and may act as a "polisher" of the particles. It is thought to promote flavour development through frictional heat, release of volatile acids and oxidation. It produced a chocolate with a superior aroma and melting characteristics. This chocolate was developed by chance as Lindt mistakenly left a mixer containing chocolate running overnight. Initially he was upset by the waste of energy and the wear and tear on the machine. Then he realised he had developed a superior product that helped change chocolate from being mainly used as a drink to being made into bars and other confectioneries.

5. Rabies

It is claimed that scientist Louis Pasteur left his research lab and his staff forgot to refrigerate a dish of the rabies virus. When he came back, they injected some animals with this "un-refrigerated" virus and these animals only displayed minor symptoms of rabies and survived. By not refrigerating the virus, it had lost its virulent, ie the animals were injected with a weaker strain of the virus. This forms the basis for most vaccinations.

6. Malaria

Mosquitoes are the carriers of malaria and breed in water. A scientist left some mosquito larvae in a dish with water on a table. A cleaner accidentally spills some liquid detergent into the dish. When the scientist return all the larvae were dead as the layer of detergent on the top of the water had prevented the larvae getting air (oxygen). Thus the use of oils, etc to form a layer or barrier on top of water suffocated the larvae and stop them developing into mosquitoes and carriers of malaria.

7. Cadbury's chocolate flake

This successful chocolate bar was originally launched in the 1920s. It was discovered by chance, ie an employee who used to fill the chocolate moulds found that the excess chocolate spilled over the edge of the moulds. This folded down into streams of chocolate. Once this stream cooled, the product was created with the texture of many thin layers of chocolate that was very crumbly and flaky (SBS 2020a).

Some more chance discoveries

- microwave oven (in a weapon research program)

- the pacemaker accidentally invented by John Hobbs (electrical engineer)

- X-ray was discovered by Wilhem Roentgen while researching cathode ray tubes

- fireworks were invented by accident by an unknown Chinese cook when mixing charcoal, saltpeter and sulphur in the kitchen
(source: Osman Sammandar, 2020)

NB In most of these cases, researchers were able to benefit from what appeared to be mistakes. Instead of dismissing these as mistakes, they were observed them with different eyes and observed their potential.

(sources: Jermoe Groopman 2018; Wikipedia 2013 & Grammar News 2019)

. Never under-estimate the importance of luck. Use it to your advantage, especially as the future is unpredictable, ie be very opportunistic

. We need to handle uncertainty by using probability, ie based on past experience, there is a certain probability of the event happening again

(sources: Patrick Dawson, 2005; Lawerence Fisher, 2005; Edgar Schein, 2004; Annette Simmons, 2002; Robert Kriegel et al, 1996; David Stauffer, 2003; Peter Senge et al,1999; Peter Senge et al, 2005; Gavin M Schwarz, 2005; Ronald A Heifetz et al, 2002; Geoffrey Colvin, 2005b; Eric Bonabeau, 2003; Luke Collins, 2005b; Robert Winston, 2003; Mike Hanley, 2005; Edward deBono, 2004; Helen Trinca, 2001a & 2006; AIM, 2002; Dale Carnegie, 2003; Thomas Johnson, 1999; Bronwyn Fryer, 2003; Michael Watkins et al, 2003; Karl Albrecht, 2003; Catherine Fox, 2003; Harry Onsman, 2005; John Kotter, 1995, 1996a, 1996b & 2003; Susan Heron, 2006; Dennis Hall, 2006a; David T Snowden et al, 2007; David Pitonyak, 2005; Catherine Fox, 2007h; Robert Sutton, 2007; Fiona Smith, 2008d; Clayton Christensen et al, 2003; Deepak Malhotra et al, 2007; Fiona Smith, 2008l; Richard Branson, 2008; Rita Gunther McGrath et al, 2009; Seth Godin, 2007; Michael Mauboussin, 2009; Fiona Smith, 2009y; Alex J Pollock, 2010; David Rock et al, 2006; David Rock, 2009; Michael Mauboussin, 2009; Fiona Smith, 2009y; John Forster, 2010; Fiona Smith, 2010; Boris Groysberg et al, 2010; Dale Carnegie, 2003; Barrie Dunstan, 2010; Barrie Dunstan, 2010a; Nassin Taleb, 2010; Alex Pentland, 2010; Peter de Jager, 2010; Chip Health, 2011; Daniel Kahneman, 2012; Malcolm Gladwell, 2013; John Markoff, 2014; Abby Ellin, 2014)


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