“I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder.”—David Maraniss.
Whether you believe in destiny or not, you can’t deny that room must always be given for error, whether it’s human error or sheer coincidences ruining plans on a whim. And sometimes, for good or ill, an accident comes with consequences bigger than anyone could be expected to predict. So how much of our lives, history, or existence depends on these accidents from happening? Find out more with this list!
Accidents That Changed History Facts
42. Done in 30 Seconds
Perry LeBaron Spencer was working with a piece of radar technology known as a magnetron. This machine was “capable of firing high intensity beams of radiation,” and one day, Spencer found a new use for the technology when he discovered that the radiation had melted a chocolate bar inside his lab coat. This led to the invention of the microwave!
41. Teflon Man
While working for DuPont in the early 1900s, chemist Roy Plunkett was experimenting with refrigerants when he came across a chemical that was nonreactive and didn’t stick to anything. He had accidentally discovered Teflon, which he patented and introduced to the rest of the world.
40. You Look Pretty, Want to Act?
One day, in Kelowna, British Columbia, a Ford modeling agency scout noticed a young woman who was working as a flight attendant with Air Canada after having done missionary work in the Philippines. The scout recruited her for the company, having her act in small projects like a phone advertisement on Canadian television. This accidental discovery, however, led this flight attendant-turned-actress to being cast in a J.J. Abrams-helmed series about a group of people trapped on an island called Lost. Thus, Evangeline Lilly’s career was born!
39. Blown Out of Proportion
In 1969, the Soviets launched the N1 moon rocket (three guesses where they aimed it). However, a single loose bolt flew into one of the rocket’s fuel pumps, causing “one of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions in human history.”
38. This Story Has a Happy Ending
You can thank Charles Goodyear for providing the tire rubber which makes your car function properly. It took Goodyear many years of failed experimentation with rubber to make it more durable. Not even when he tried mixing the rubber with acid did he manage to make it work. Then, in an act of pure frustration, Goodyear threw a gob of his acid-infused rubber onto a hot stove. However, this was his big moment; burning it led to the creation of vulcanized rubber, which was strong and weatherproof. It’s good to know that he finally got it right!
37. This is Useless…
During the Second World War, Dr. Harry Coover was trying to find a plastic which could make for a clear gunsight. Much to his frustration, his experiments with a material called cyanoacrylate all failed, as the material was too sticky and so he abandoned it in favor of other materials, never seeing the potential.
36. …Wait, No it Isn’t!
Eventually, Dr. Coover returned to the material which gave him such a headache over how sticky it was and decided that maybe it could be sold as a kind of adhesive. A marketing campaign which showed off a car being suspended on a crane using the adhesive did the trick, and Krazy Glue caught on like a house on fire!
35. Tastes Good
It’s never a good idea to eat without washing your hands, but in the case of chemist Constantin Fahlberg, it led to the happy accident of him making a new discovery. After working with coal tar, Fahlberg sat down to eat and realized that the residue on his hands was making everything taste sweet. He’d discovered saccharine completely by mistake.
34. I’ll Take Ten Cases, Please
In the 1990s, the drug company known as Pfizer launched a series of tests with a drug they were hoping could be sold as angina medicine. However, one side effect of the medicine was that the men taking the drug were able to sustain their erections longer and better than ever before. To great fanfare, Pfizer had discovered Viagra by complete mistake.
33. You Got Your Christmas Wish, You Fool
On the evening of Christmas Day, 1776, a spy called Moses Dean was near Trenton, New Jersey when he witnessed soldiers in a boat making their way down the river. He hurried to warn Col. Johann Rall, the commander of a Hessian troop guarding Trenton. However, Dean couldn’t reach Rall because the colonel was engaged in a very fierce poker game. Dean scrawled his warning onto a note, but the colonel accidentally forgot about it as he was too immersed in the poker game. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the warning Dean was trying to give was that George Washington (along with several other Founding Fathers) was crossing the Delaware, and had Col. Rall been prepared to defeat him, it’s likely that the American War of Independence could have ended that very day.
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32. Lost, Then Found
In 1862, the American Civil War was raging, with General Robert E. Lee going on the offensive against the North in the hope to lure European powers to join in and help the Confederacy win its independence. However, a stray copy of Lee’s invasion plans was accidentally left lying around for two Union soldiers to find and eventually bring to the attention of Union leader George B. McClellan. This led to the game-changing Battle of Antietam, which not only forced Lee to withdraw back into the South, but also gave President Lincoln the chance to announce the Emancipation Proclamation.
31. Does That Count as Plagiarizing?
The career of British rock band Dire Straits was filled with hit songs that are beloved to this day. One of the top-tier hits in Dire Straits’ oeuvre is “Money for Nothing.” At first listen, it might sound like the jealous rants of a bitter person hating on rock stars. That’s because that’s exactly how the song began! Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler went shopping for appliances one day when he overheard a furious worker at the store complaining about rock stars and how rich they were. Having a laugh, Knopfler actually wrote down everything that the worker said, while he was never aware that his bad day was being accidentally observed by one of the very rock stars he so despised! To add insult to injury, Knopfler took those complaints and turned them into lyrics for one of his biggest hit songs.
30. A Mad Series of Events
Before he was known as a source of drunken outbursts, Mel Gibson was one of the biggest stars in the world, with movies like Braveheart, What Women Want, The Passion of the Christ, and the Lethal Weapon series. However, he got his big break with Mad Max, the cult Australian film which launched a film franchise and put Australian cinema on the international map. The irony is that Gibson wasn’t even interested in a film career when he went to the audition; he was just there to give his actor friend a lift. In fact, the night before, he’d gotten into a drunken brawl (because Australia) and was sporting some impressive injuries to his face. Director George Miller was so impressed with the look that he asked Gibson to come back to a second audition. When he saw how Gibson looked without a black eye and bruises, he was convinced to hire him as the lead role!
29. Is That Your Uranium?
In 1896, physicist Henri Becquerel was leaving fluorescent materials in the sun as part of an experiment which he hoped would lead said materials to produce x-rays. However, Becquerel was cursed with seven days of cloudy skies, so he left the materials in a drawer. When he returned a week later, Becquerel was amazed to discover that one of the materials, a lump of uranium rock, had “managed to imprint its image on a nearby photographic plate without any exposure to light.” This led to the accidental discovery of radioactivity!
28. Humble Beginnings
If you think Evangeline Lilly’s career seemed like a heck of an accident, that’s nothing compared to Rosario Dawson. Born to a teenage mother, Dawson spent her formative years living in poverty. On one occasion, when Dawson was 17 years old, she and her mother had broken into an abandoned apartment to make it their home.
27. Nice to Meet You, Young Lady
It was outside this stolen home where the teenage Rosario Dawson was sitting one day when she was approached by Harmony Korine, a young skateboarder-turned-screenwriter and Larry Clark, a controversial photographer and filmmaker. Both men suggested Dawson come and audition for their upcoming film, to which she surprisingly agreed. The result was her making her triumphant debut in the highly controversial film Kids. The rest is history.
26. But He Was a Brilliant Scientist!
In 1928, Alexander Fleming was experimenting with bacteria when he decided that he needed a break from being a scientist. He ended up going on vacation without fully cleaning one of his petri dishes! When he got back, he found that bacteria had covered the plate, except for an area occupied by a sort of mold. This ultimately led to the discovery of penicillin!
25. Who’s Laughing Now?
Back in the 1840s, nitrous oxide was used purely for entertainment purposes. People would take it and react to it like it was a laughing gas. And perhaps people would have still used it that way today if it wasn’t for the fact that Horace Wells noticed that when his friend took enough of it and accidentally injured himself, the friend hadn’t noticed he was badly hurt. Being a dentist, Wells realized that nitrous oxide could be used for operations, resulting in the first anesthesia!
24. You’ve Got a Handsome Friend, There
Mel Gibson wasn’t the only movie star who got cast in a movie by driving a friend to the audition. The same thing later happened to a young Johnny Depp when he was busy trying to support his friend Jackie Earle Haley. Haley was auditioning for a role in the upcoming Wes Craven film A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unfortunately for Haley, Craven noticed Depp and offered him a role instead.
23. “The Most Expensive Hyphen in History”
Mariner 1, the first US inter-planetary probe, was launched towards Venus by NASA in 1962. However, the computer equation was confused by an overbar which randomly appeared as a typo. The spacecraft veered off-course, and NASA was forced to detonate it just “five minutes after liftoff.”
22. Pamela Meets World
There’s a generation of men (and women) who spent at least part of their teenage years fantasizing about Playboy model and Canadian actress Pamela Anderson. Interestingly, the only reason that Anderson ever became famous in the first place had nothing to do with her pursuing a film career or photography gig of any kind. She was working as a fitness instructor when she went to a football game in Vancouver, and her image appeared on a Jumbotron. She so impressed the crowd that she received a modeling contract almost immediately after the game—or maybe while the game was still playing?
21. Bet You Can’t Have Just One
In 1853, an irate customer continued to send his plate of fried potatoes back to the kitchen because they were too soggy. Finally, chef George Crum had enough, and to spite the customer, he sliced the potatoes as thin as he could, made them crisp, and coated them in salt before sending them back. By complete accident, he invented a new dish that took the world by storm. We know them today as potato chips.
20. Accidental Classic
In 1970, a Canadian band called the Guess Who were in the middle of being nobodies trying to get any gig they could get their hands on. During such an event, their guitarist, Randy Bachman, accidentally broke one of his guitar strings. When he replaced the string, Bachman tuned his guitar with the help of the band’s piano. Amazingly, the audience heard Bachman’s tuning process and thought it was a great riff. The band ended up going with the flow, making up a song virtually on the fly. That song went on to be “American Woman”!
In 1968, a chemist named Spencer Silver accidentally developed a weak adhesive which was unable to do anything more than keep paper sticking to surfaces. It wasn’t until several failed attempts at marketing the adhesive until Silver’s friend realized that Silver had basically invented the first Post-it notes!
18. Follow the Instructions!
New York City found itself without power thanks to one operator accidentally missing a switch. In the aftermath of lightning striking the Con Edison facility in July 1977, there was a process required to restore power. However, because one switch got missed, ConEd went offline for over a day. Because this also happened during a heat wave, New York City’s population started a riot which caused around $300 million in damage.
17. It’s Debunking Time!
The famous story is that Sir Isaac Newton was inspired to pursue the study of gravity after an apple struck him on the head in an example of comic timing changing the fate of science. One would be forgiven if they thought this was an apocryphal story made up to give a simple explanation for years of scientific study. However, Newton himself told this story of being inspired by an apple falling from a tree, and his friend, William Stukeley, confirmed it to have happened. Of course, their version didn’t have Newton being hit on the head, but rather noticing an apple falling down while he was in the garden and wondering about the consistency of an apple’s fall.
16. Let’s Turn Back the Clock
In the 1950s, the island nation of Cuba decided that they’d had enough of being exploited by Uncle Sam. When a revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara overthrew the American-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista, the Americans were shocked and outraged. Obsessed with the idea of a Marxist government thriving in the Western hemisphere, the CIA prepared to recruit anti-Castro Cubans, arm and train them, and send them into Cuba to overthrow the revolution. We know it today as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which you might remember did not overthrow Fidel Castro. But the reason why it failed is laughably dumb.
15. Rookie Mistake
The plan behind the Bay of Pigs invasion was an infantry force of 1,500 mercenaries would be brought to Cuba by boat from the US, while planes would fly from a US air base in Nicaragua to provide support. However, they made one fatal mistake: the airmen forgot to account for the time zone difference between Nicaragua and Cuba. As a result, they showed up an hour late, during which the invaders had already been defeated by a population quite willing to defend Castro’s government, and Cuba remained Marxist for many more years.
14. Close The Door Behind You
In the spring of 1453, the great city of Constantinople was facing the biggest siege of its long history. The attackers were led by Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, but even with more than 200,000 men and the best cannons of the age, he still hadn’t breached the amazing defenses of Constantinople after two months. That changed on May 29, 1453, when the defenders of the city came out to repair some damage to the walls but accidentally left the gate unlocked behind them! The Ottoman forces noticed, and swarmed into the city, presumably while laughing at how much things change because someone goofed up! The city fell, was renamed Istanbul, and western Europe was forced to find an alternate route east, leading to the age of exploration.
13. You Had One Job, Erwin
In 1944, Nazi Germany became convinced that the Allies were planning an invasion of Normandy from Britain, so they assigned their most celebrated general to head the defenses. However, Erwin Rommel decided that the weather was so horrible on the 5th of June that no army commander in his right mind would order an invasion fleet across the Channel. He decided to go home and surprise his wife on her birthday instead. Unfortunately, for Rommel, the invasion happened on the very next day, and by the time he returned to his post, the Allies had made their beachhead and begun the turn of the tide in western Europe.
12. Sleepyhead Adolf
To make matters worse for the Germans, they actually tried to reach out to their supreme commander, Adolf Hitler, to authorize a Panzer tank division to try and stop the Allied invasion while they were still storming the beaches. However, Hitler was sleeping at the time, and nobody felt like being the guy to wake him up. No doubt he was very pleased to hear the good news when he woke up, though!
11. The Lives We Could Have Saved
Frederick Fleet was a British sailor who famously served on the crew of the Titanic and was the first man to see the iceberg which would sink the ship on April 14, 1912. Fleet survived the sinking and testified during subsequent inquiries that he would have been able to see the iceberg soon enough “to get [the ship] out of the way” if he’d been given a pair of binoculars to do his job.
The laughably dumb reason why Fleet didn’t get to use binoculars when trying to serve as a lookout for the Titanic wasn’t because the binoculars hadn’t been brought along. They were on board, but the locker in which they were kept had one key, and the key had been left behind! Before the ship sailed away, they replaced one of the crewmen for a more experienced man, but the former crewman forgot to leave the locker key behind when he was discharged. The key remained in his family’s possession for years, presumably as a haunting reminder of what could have been.
9. Before He Became the Duke
One of the biggest stars of his time, John Wayne had never meant to become an actor. Born Marion Robert Morrison, Wayne was actually interested in a football career, going to USC on a scholarship. However, Wayne went bodysurfing one day on his time off and suffered an accident which left him seriously injured. Wayne lost his scholarship, dropped out of USC, and turned to working as a movie extra just to pay the bills. From there, however, he befriended film director John Ford, who gave him a lead role in Stagecoaches.
8. A Starlet Is Born
Norma Jeane Mortensen was a young woman from LA who had grown up “moving between foster homes and orphanages” when she began working at a munitions plant. The Second World War was going on at the time, and YANK magazine sent a photographer to the munitions plant to take some pictures. He spotted Mortensen and took her photo for the cover, suggesting that she had the makings (and body) of a movie star. From there, Mortensen embarked on a path that would lead to her being remembered as the movie bombshell Marilyn Monroe.
7. Lost in Translation
By 1945, only Japan was still fighting the Allies in the Second World War. Equipped with two atom bombs, the US demanded that Japan agree to an unconditional surrender with the Potsdam Declaration. Kantaro Suzuki, the Premier of Japan, announced that he was considering the declaration. However, he used the Japanese word “mokusatsu,” which also meant “contemptuously ignore,” and this translation was sent to President Harry Truman. It’s debatable that if the other translation had been sent to Truman, it may or may not have influenced whether the Americans dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
6. Well, if God Tells Us to…
In 1631, Martin Lucas and Robert Barker were printing copies of the King James Bible when they accidentally left out a crucial word in one of the commandments. The result was that a bible existed which declared “Thou shalt commit adultery.” This copy became known as the “Wicked Bible.” As for Barker and Lucas, they were put out of business by a furious Charles I, while all but 11 of their bibles were burned by order of the king.
5. Setting Up the Beginning of the End
For nearly 30 years, the Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of the Cold War, dividing the German capital in two. By 1989, however, many were sick of what was seen as a battle of egos between the US and the USSR. Change was also on the wind thanks to the price of oil and nations of the Eastern Bloc being fed up with the totalitarian noose being drawn around them.
4. Change is Coming. Maybe You Heard?
Despite all this, however, there was no sign that the Berlin Wall was going to do anything except remain standing. That changed, however, when Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet Union and shake up the status quo to adapt to new times. He insisted that Eastern Germany act with more independence than had been previously allowed. This led to the East Germans deciding to loosen the travel restrictions which had divided the Berliners for so long.
3. A Day to Inspire Pink Floyd
This change in policy regarding travel between East and West Germany led to a press conference in East Germany. The conference was held on November 9, 1989, with the politician Gunter Schabowski tasked with giving the speech announcing the policy changes. However, due to a misinterpretation in the speech (Schabowski hadn’t read the speech through before the conference began), some journalists were convinced that Schabowski was saying that the restrictions would be completely removed rather than partially alleviated. When someone demanded to know when the new policy would take effect, Schabowski was unsure how to answer. Flipping through the pages of his speech, he improvised and answered: “Immediately, right away.” This led to the announcement that the Wall was supposed to come down ASAP, leading to a huge crowd building on both sides of the Wall. When the authorities refused to turn it into a riot and stepped aside, the crowd approached the Wall and tore it down that very day.
2. Tread Carefully
Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps to invade Italy from the north was a watershed moment in military history. Hannibal proceeded to crush the Roman armies in several battles despite being outnumbered, leading to him being remembered as one of the most successful generals in human history. However, he might have been even more successful if it hadn’t been for a fatal mistake he made while crossing the Alps with his army. On one particularly dangerous pass in the mountains, Hannibal wanted to show his army that the way was safe, so he struck the snow with a cane. Because the world sometimes turns on comedic outcomes, this led to an avalanche which destroyed up to two thirds of his forces, including most of his elephants! It’s safe to say that it wasn’t Hannibal’s finest hour.
1. Antiquity Recovered
In 1947, two shepherds were pursuing a stray goat near the Dead Sea. While searching for the lost animal, they came across a cave filled with clay pots. Inside the clay pots were scrolls of papyrus. After historians and scholars became aware of the discovery, they were led to the area and found ten more caves with even more scrolls! They are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they contain the earliest-known copy of the Hebrew Bible, written in three ancient languages.