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We were all taught that the famous British scientist discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head. An apocryphal story but one that has captivated audiences for centuries. History is full of similar surprising events that inspired some of the greatest discoveries; we take a look at four of our favourites.
Eureka! The word Archimedes repeated ecstatically when he discovered that an object placed in water will displace the same amount of water as its own volume. The discovery stemmed from the command of a King. King Hiero II of Syracuse suspected his goldsmith of substituting some of the gold used for his golden wreath with an equal weight of silver. The King gave Archimedes the near impossible task of discovering whether or not the wreath was pure gold without damaging it. The story goes that as Archimedes lay floating in his bathtub he thought about how “weightless” his body had become, this is when he realised that all bodies "lose" a little weight when placed in water, and the bigger their volume, the more weight they lose. Archimedes was so excited about his discovery that he ran through the streets naked to tell people.
The story begins with a dirty room – well, sort of. Dr. Alexander Fleming returned from a holiday in Scotland to an incredibly messy lab. The doctor started to sort through the petri dishes he had left behind, and found that they all contained colonies of Staphylococcus, bacteria that cause boils, sore throats and abscesses – nice! He noticed something unusual in one dish: it was dotted with the bacteria, apart from one area where a blob of mold was growing. The section immediately around the mold was clear; it seemed the mold had stopped the bacteria from growing. This mold was later identified as Penicillium notatum and this led to the production of the drug we know today as penicillin. The fact that Dr. Fleming left his laboratory in a complete mess led to the discovery of a drug that is estimated to have saved 200 million live since its production.
3. Industrial Robotics
Joseph F. Engelberger is commonly referred to as the father of industrial robotics, he has a cocktail party invitation to partially thank for this prestigious title. In 1956, Mr Engelberger met American engineer and inventor George C. Devol at a cocktail party. The two discussed Mr Devol’s work and patent application for a mechanical arm that could be programmed to repeat precise tasks, like grasping and lifting. Engelberger was enthralled by the idea and partnered with Devol to create Unimation Inc., the company which later manufactured industrial robots to perform jobs dangerous to humans. Today, sectors such as healthcare and logistics, all benefit from Engelberger and Devol’s chinwag at a party.
4. The microwave
If it’s coming home late from work wanting a quick meal or if it’s just that lazy feeling, the microwave saves millions of people around the world precious time by heating up food in a matter of minutes. The frequent microwave user should pay homage to Percy Spencer, the inventor of this incredible piece of technology. Percy was a self-taught engineer and started his career quite early, at the age of 16; he even helped bring electricity to a paper mill in his small town. He later worked successfully for Raytheon Manufacturing Company, a defense contractor. It was here that Spencer was trying to improve the power level of magnetron tubes to be used in radar sets. One day in 1946 as he was testing the magnetrons he noticed the peanut cluster bar in his pocket had melted. Intrigued by this, he fetched corn kernels to see if something similar would happen when they were exposed to the magnetrons, and as expected the corn starting popping. Percy saw how this might appeal to the public but he was ahead of his time. Two years after his discovery he launched RadaRange, the first commercial microwave oven, which cost $5,000, weighed 340 kilos, and was nearly six feet tall. The product was a huge flop. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when use of the microwave oven, as it became known, grew in popularity. Microwave meals are now hugely popular around the world and by 2022 the microwave oven market is set to be worth $12.70 billion!