Three Tales of Serendipity in Technology

Michael Renotte I 3:18 am, 19th August

When we talk science and technology, serendipity is probably one of the last words that would strike our minds. We do not expect great innovations in technology to happen by chance. After all, science and technology are all about careful calculations and diligent research.

Having said that, it is surprising to find out that there are indeed several inventions that occurred accidentally. And some of these accidents have revolutionized the world we live in.

Here are 3 such tales of serendipity in technology for you.

The microwave

This technology is probably on the top of every list of accidental inventions because life without the microwave oven today is unimaginable. The ability of microwaves to heat things was discovered by an American engineer, Percy Spencer. Spencer was working at Raytheon in the 1940s, experimenting with magnetrons. Magnetrons were high-power vacuum tubes that could generate short radio waves called microwaves.

The experiments were underway for defense radars. But one fine day, Spencer noticed that the microwaves from the magnetron began to melt a chocolate bar that was in his pocket. Spencer realized this could be a breakthrough. He experimented further, aiming the microwaves at other food items and saw they all got heated to some extent.

Raytheon grabbed this opportunity with both hands and patented the first microwave in 1945. The countertop ovens, as we know them, were introduced later in 1965.


The X-rays that have been a revolutionary contribution to medical science were another accidental discovery. Scientists had been trying to photograph this strange light that appeared near their electrical contacts but weren’t really successful. Until in 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen decided to take it a step further.

He was experimenting with a cathode ray tube when he saw that a sheet of paper coated with barium platinocyanide began to glow. Roentgen tried covering the tube with several different objects, but most of them failed to stop the rays. He asked his wife to place her hand in front of the tube, and that is when history was made.

That was the first X-ray image ever taken. Roentgen won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery in 1901.

Smart dust

This is a more recent tale of serendipity. While working with a silicon chip at the University of California in 2003, Chemistry student Jamie Link accidentally shattered the chip. But to their surprise, Jamie and her supervisor found that the broken pieces of the chip were still sending signals like microsensors.

They decided to call these particles Smart Dust, which refers to tiny microelectromechanical systems, a concept first encountered at a RAND workshop in 1992. These microsensors have computational abilities too. This is deemed as one of the most important discoveries of the century. The Smart Dust can be used to test the purity of air or water, screen chemicals for use in potential new drugs, and even locate and treat tumors in the body.


These were only a handful of accidental discoveries in technology we were able to accommodate for now. Many other such happy accidents have had an equally significant impact on our lives ever since their serendipitous appearances. The world of science and technology is full of surprises. We’ll never know what we could bump into next.


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