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Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Things Discovered by mistake in the Nineteenth Century

 Things Discovered by mistake in the Nineteenth Century

By C. A. Asbrey

There have been many great scientific discoveries that have made our lives longer, easier, more pleasant, but more of them were stumbled upon than aimed for than you'd think. I thought it might be fun to have a look at some of the inventions that changed our lives for the better while the scientists were looking elsewhere for something else entirely.

Artificial Sweetener  

In 1878 the Russian scientists, Constantin Fahlberg and Ira Remsen, were working on the coal tar derivative benzoic sulphimide, when Fahlberg noticed that something on his hand was sweet. In another version of the story, Fahlberg laid down his cigarette, and found that was tainted. Now, I'd never recommend going around laboratories licking at random chemical reactions sticking to your hands, or tasting things the chemicals adhere to, but I'm sure he knew what he was doing. At least, he knew it wouldn't kill him. What did surprise him was the taste. It was sweet. Remsen and Fahlberg developed a synthesis of saccharin from o-sulfamoylbenzoic acid. Despite the slightly metallic aftertaste, it became hugely popular as an aid to weight loss. Its reputation was enhanced when it was endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, before it sank in public health warnings in the twentieth century.

Corn Flakes

John Harvey Kellogg built on an invention by his brother, Will, who worked at Battle Creek Sanatorium. It was originally made with wheat, and was popular with inmates there. There is dispute about who did what with the product, with Will's wife, Ella, reputed to be the one who suggested rolling the flakes flat before toasting them. John is said to have designed rollers to do this at an industrial level. What is agreed is that John was testing wheat-berry dough, and left a batch there overnight. Rather than throw it out, they sent it through the rollers and baked it—and it was perfect. Cornflakes were born.

What is less well-known is that the Kelloggs were Seventh-day Adventists who promoted an austere diet as part of their strict moral principles. They saw a link between a teetotal vegetarian diet, restraint from sex and masturbation, and a long healthy life. Their strict moral principles never stopped John, Will, and Ella from each giving a version of the story that favoured their own efforts, and reduced the input of the other two, though. John even claimed to have discovered the secret in a dream.

Worcestershire Sauce

First of all, the pronunciation. It's 'woo-ster' sauce. Not 'wor-chestershire'. Place and proper names in the UK are frequently not phonetic. There are hundreds of them, and this is one. Secondly, etiquette dictates that the 'shire' part is only pronounced when applied to the place - and Worcestershire is a real place. When applied to the sauce, it's 'woo-ster' only. Those are the rules set by the British upper classes to sift the wheat from the chaff hundreds of years ago, and are part of the series of landmines set to catch the unwary. Names like Featherstonehaugh are pronounced Fanshaw, Marjoriebanks turns into Marchbanks, Powell becomes Pole, and Belvoir Castle becomes Beever Castle. Worcestershire Sauce is 'Wooster sauce'. That's how the queen says it, and she's the one to argue to the contrary with, as I'll have moved on and will be writing a different blog post by then. However, she'd probably be too polite to correct you.

 But to the sauce.

The story goes that Lord Sandy had returned from Bengal, India in 1835, and desperately missed his favourite sauce. He commissioned local pharmacists, John Lea and William Perrins, to reproduce it. They mixed spices, tamari, soy, vinegar, anchovies, and numerous other ingredients to come up with a product that was so potent it was soundly rejected not only by Lord Sandy, but by all their customers too.

They put the stock down in the cellar and forgot about it for a couple of years, until it was discovered during a clean-out. The sauce had fermented and changed completely, and they couldn't sell enough of it. Before long they encouraged the transatlantic liners to put it on the tables. That took it to America, recorded as first selling there in 1839.

The fermented fish-based sauce is often compared to the omnipresent Ancient Roman sauce garum. However, garum was based on sauces made throughout the ancient world, and had various names including liquamen. These fish-based, fermented sauces also gave a strong umami flavour based on the presence of glutamates, and perform a similar function to soy sauce in the Far East.

In 2013 the original recipe was discovered and reproduced, giving people a chance to taste the original product. The ingredients were; Barley malt vinegar, Spirit vinegar, Molasses, Sugar, Salt, Anchovies, Tamarind extract, Shallots (later replaced by onions), Garlic, Spices & Flavourings.

Dynamite and Nitroglycerine

Nitroglycerine was discovered in 1847 by the Italian, Ascanio Sobrero, in Turin. He had studied in Paris, a leading centre of scientific discoveries in the nineteenth century, and he initially found no use for it. He called it pyroglycerine, and thought it was far too volatile and destructive to be of any use. nitroglycerine was more powerful than the black powder used at the time. It was over to Alfred Nobel to take the work further. One day he was working in the lab and he dropped a vial of nitroglycerine, but it failed to explode—it had landed on a pile of sawdust, and the absorbent qualities had made the compound more unpredictable. Nobel ran with this discovery, producing sticks of explosives made by mixing nitroglycerin with wood chips, and the rest is history.   

But that wasn't the end of the story. There were numerous medicines discovered by accident, and most of them will be well-known. Cases such as penicillin spores killing off bacteria in a sample left nearby, or Jenner noticing that those who worked with cattle rarely caught smallpox, leading to the advent of vaccinations. There are less well-known ones though, and lithium is a case in point, originally being used for a treatment for gout until other uses were found in the twentieth century.

When Sobrero was working with nitroglycerine, he noted that ingesting just a small amount from his fingers gave him a raging headache. I'll pause once more to reflect how often scientists of the past found themselves licking and tasting their discoveries, before moving on.

Two years later, in 1849, Constantin Hering was working with nitroglycerine, and experimented on healthy volunteers. He found that the headaches were caused with 'such precision' that it merited further investigation. He was originally working on the homeopathic principle of 'curing like with like', and thought that he might have found a cure for headaches, but reached a dead end in his trials.

It was Alfred Nobel who gave a clue to the medicinal application. He had angina, and found that his symptoms were relieved by handling it. Lauder Brunton was working with amyl nitrite, and experimenting on its use as a vasodilator. He picked up on nitroglycerine in 1876, and found it to be a powerful remedy. William Murrel was the first man treated with the compound for angina. It was also used to treat hypertension. Bizarrely, Nobel refused it as a treatment.

Nitroglycerine also contributed to an industrial health scandal known as the Sunday Heart Attack. The production exposed workers to high levels of organic nitrates, and withdrawal over the weekend impacted the health of those working with it.


William Henry Perkin was a British chemist who was working hard on the admirable task of trying to create a synthetic quinine to treat malaria. He didn't find it. What he did find was that aniline could be partially transformed into a crude mixture that when extracted with alcohol, produced an intense purple. It was the first synthetic dye for a colour previously produced from the glands of predatory sea snails. It was so expensive to produce it was largely the preserve of royalty and the very rich. He called the new dye mauvine.

It was a game-changer in the world of fashion, ultimately opening the world up to easier access to a range of inexpensive colours through aniline dyes. However, the first one made an impact, helped by Queen Victoria and the wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie, embracing the new colour. In the late 1850s, mauve was so popular that the press reported an outbreak of what they called mauve measles  

Nikola Tesla

It'd be hard to close a piece on accidental discoveries without mentioning Nikola Tesla. He made two distinct discoveries before anyone else, but—it was only later that the implications became clear—in one case much later. Tesla had the famous writer Mark Twain pose for a photograph using a new device called a Crookes tube. Tesla decided the splotchy photograph was ruined, but weeks later, Wilhelm R√∂ntigen released his discovery of 'x-radiation' using Crookes tubes. Tesla checked again, and found that he had also produced an x-ray picture of Twain, but also that the picture had been ruined by the metal screws in the camera.

The second discovery took much longer to be understood. In 1899, Tesla set up a laboratory in Colorado to investigate the possibility of transmitting information and electrical power over long distances. One day, monitoring lightning storms, he detected a series of bleeps. After ruling out other factors, he concluded the signals must be coming from another space—but he couldn't prove it. It took until 1996 for scientists to replicate the experiment, and far more modern equipment established that the signal had been caused by the moon passing through Jupiter's magnetic field. The man was a genius.   


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 




  1. What a cut off point for your wonderfully tense and vivid excerpt, Christine! What a cliff-hanger!
    Fascinating article. I agree about British names and strange pronunciations. And Tesla! A man ahead of his time.

  2. Thanks so much, Lindsay. Yes, British pronunciations are a nightmare for the unwary. My favourite is a place in Scotland spelled, "Avoch', but pronounced 'Och'.

  3. What an enticing excerpt! And I learned a lot from your post. Thanks.

    1. Thanks so much, Ann. It's surprising how many things get discovered in the search for something else.