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14 Incredible Inventions That Were Discovered By Accident

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Sometimes the best inventions are discovered by accident.

One day in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming returned to his lab in London after a two-week vacation to find that mold had developed on a contaminated staphylococcus culture plate. The scientist was searching for a “wonder drug” to cure a wide variety of diseases. A moldy Petri dish was not a part of the plan, but Fleming noticed the culture had prevented the growth of staphylococci. Further examination revealed penicillin, a powerful antibiotic that could be used to treat everything from tonsillitis to syphilis.

Sir Alexander Fleming’s careless mistake became one of the most important medical discoveries in history. Thanks to penicillin, the rate of death due to infectious disease is now 5% of what it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

Accidental Breakthroughs

Today’s infographic, from Broadbandwhatever, highlights some noteworthy accidental inventions in modern history and demonstrates that not all accidents are created equal.

Accidental Inventions

Other Noteworthy Accidental Inventions

Coca-Cola
The 1880s was the era of miracle elixirs and across America pharmacists were cooking up “cures” for every conceivable ailment. Atlanta-based pharmacist, John Pemberton, capitalized on the trend by selling a French Wine Coca concoction that was touted as a cure for headaches and nervous disorders. Pemberton’s business hit a speed bump in 1885, when Atlanta banned the sale of alcohol, so he omitted the wine and created a coca-based syrup that could be mixed with carbonated water and drank as a soda. He named this new “brain tonic” Coca-Cola.

Velcro
Swiss engineer George de Mestral was out hunting in the Alps with his dog when he noticed burrs sticking to its fur. To satisfy his curiosity about what makes burrs so “sticky”, Mestral viewed one under a microscope and observed the tiny hooks that allow it to latch on to surfaces like fabric and fur. For years, Mestral experimented with a variety of textiles before arriving at a solution: Velcro, which he eventually patented. The technology was useful, but really began to take off in popularity when Apollo astronauts used Velcro to keep objects secure in orbit.

Teflon
Next time you’re making breakfast, remember that Roy Plunkett is the reason you’re able flip pancake with ease. Long before CFCs became the environmental super-villain depleting the ozone layer, the chemist was aiming to create a new type of chlorofluorocarbon. One day, when Plunkett returned to a refrigeration chamber to check on an experiment, a canister that had contained gas had vanished leaving a few white flakes behind. Upon examining the mysterious substance, he realised it had a very high melting point and was very effective as a lubricant. Teflon was first used in military applications and is now famously applied to cookware around the world.

A Note On Silver Linings

Whether you’re experimenting with materials or working on a new business, you never know when a mishap can transform into your “Eureka” moment.

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Misc

Watching the Sky Fall: Visualizing a Century of Meteorites

This data visualization depicts every meteorite that was observed hitting the Earth over a 100-year period, between 1913-2012.

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Watching the Sky Fall: Visualizing a Century of Meteorites

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said “The chances that your tombstone will read ‘Killed by an Asteroid’ are about the same as they’d be for ‘Killed in Airplane Crash’.”

Part of the reason for this is the Earth’s atmospheric ability to burn up inbound space rocks before they reach the surface, a process that ensures that most meteors never become meteorites.

Of the 33,162 meteorites found in the past 100 years, only 625 were seen. Today’s visualization from data designer Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez groups these 625 observed meteorites by the year they fell, classification, mass, and landing location on Earth.

Asteroid, Meteoroids, Meteors, and Meteorites

Not all flying space rocks are the same. Their origins and trajectories define its type.

Asteroid: A large rocky body in space, in orbit around the Sun.
Meteoroid: Much smaller rocks or particles in orbit around the Sun.
Meteor: If a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, it becomes a meteor, or a shooting star.
Meteorite: If a small asteroid or large meteoroid survives its fiery passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands on Earth’s surface.
Bolide: A very bright meteor that often explodes in the atmosphere, also known as a fireball.

Classification

This graphic classifies meteorites into four types based on their composition: stony, stony-iron, iron and other.

StonyStony-IronIronOther
Achondites
Chrondites
Unclassifed
Mesoiderites
Pallasites
Magmatic
Non-magmatic or Primitive
Doubtful Meteorites
Pseudometeorite

Top 5 Meteorites by Size

While half of all observed meteorites weighed less than 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs), there are a few exceptional ones that stand out. The graphic highlights the five largest meteorites ever observed, and when they fell:

LocatonSizeYearType
Sikhote-Alin, Russia23 MT1947Iron
Jilin, China4 MT1976Stony
Allende, Mexico2 MT1969Stony
Norton County, USA1.1 MT1948Stony
Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan1.1 MT1998Stony

Each category differs in their amount of iron-nickel metal and what they reveal about the early solar system.

Fireballs in the Sky: Bolides

Small asteroids frequently enter and disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere randomly around the globe, creating fireballs known as bolides. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program mapped data gathered by U.S. government sensors from 1994 to 2013.

Source: NASA

The data indicates that small asteroids impacted Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a bolide (or fireball), on 556 separate occasions over a 20-year period. Almost all asteroids of this size disintegrate in the atmosphere and are harmless.

A notable exception was the Chelyabinsk event in 2013, which was the largest known natural object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event. A house-sized asteroid entered the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk at over 11 miles per second, and blew apart 14 miles above the ground.

The explosion released an energy equivalent to ~440,000 tons of TNT, generating a shock wave that shattered windows over 200 square miles—damaging several buildings and injuring over 1,600 people.

Look Out Above

While the night sky appears to be a beautiful tableau of the cosmos, these two visualizations paint a dramatic galactic battle. Rocks inundate our planet as it moves through the darkness of space. The resiliency of Earth’s atmosphere to erode these invaders has allowed life to flourish⁠—until the next big one comes through.

Remember the Dinosaurs?

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Mapped: Top Countries by Tourist Spending

How much do your vacations contribute to your destination of choice? This visualization shows the countries that receive the most tourist spending.

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Mapped: Top Countries by Tourist Spending

Many people spend their days looking forward to their next getaway. But do you know exactly how much these vacation plans contribute economically to your chosen destination?

Today’s visualization from HowMuch.net highlights the countries in which tourists spend the most money. Locations have been resized based on spending amounts, which come from the latest data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Oh, The Places Tourists Will Go

Across the different regions, Europe’s combined tourist spending dominates at $570 billion. Easy access to closely-located countries, both via rail networks and a shared currency, may be a reason why almost 710 million visitors toured the region in 2018.

Asia-Pacific, which includes Australia and numerous smaller islands, saw the greatest growth in tourism expenditures. Total spending reached $435 billion in 2018—a 7% year-over-year increase, from 348 million visitors. Not surprisingly, some areas such as Macao (SAR) tend to rely heavily on tourists as a primary economic driver.

Here’s how other continental regions fared, in terms of tourist spending and visitors:

  • Americas
    Total expenditures: $333 billion
    Total visitors: 216 million
    Expenses per visitor: $1,542
  • Middle East
    Total expenditures: $73 billion
    Total visitors: 60 million
    Expenses per visitor: $1,216
  • Africa
    Total expenditures: $38 billion
    Total visitors: 67 million
    Expenses per visitor: $567

Of course, these numbers only paint a rudimentary picture of global tourism, as they vary greatly even within these regions. Let’s look closer at the individual country data for 2018, compared to previous years.

The Top Tourist Hotspots, By Country

It seems that many tourists are gravitating towards the same destinations, as evidenced by both the number of arrivals and overall expenditures for 2017 and 2018 alike.

Country2018 Spending2018 Arrivals Country2017 Spending2017 Arrivals
1. U.S. 🇺🇸$214.5B79.6M1. U.S. 🇺🇸$210.7B74.8M
2. Spain 🇪🇸$73.8B82.8M2. Spain 🇪🇸$68B81.8M
2. France 🇫🇷$67.4B89.4M3. France 🇫🇷$60.7B86.9M
4. Thailand 🇹🇭$63B38.3M4. Thailand 🇹🇭$57.5B35.4M
5. UK 🇬🇧$51.9B36.3M5. UK 🇬🇧51.2B37.7M
6. Italy 🇮🇹$49.3B62.1M6. Italy 🇮🇹$44.2B58.3M
7. Australia 🇦🇺$45B9.2M7. Australia 🇦🇺$41.7B8.8M
8. Germany 🇩🇪$43B38.9M8. Germany 🇩🇪$39.8B37.5M
9. Japan 🇯🇵$41.1B31.2M9. Macao (SAR) 🇲🇴$35.6B17M
10. China 🇨🇳$40.4B62.9M10. Japan 🇯🇵$34.1B28.6M

Source: World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Note that data is for international tourism only and does not include domestic tourism.

The top contenders have remained fairly consistent, as each country brings something unique to the table—from natural wonders to historic and man-made structures.

Where Highest-Spending Tourists Come From

The nationality of tourists also seems to be a factor in these total expenditures. Chinese tourists spent $277 billion internationally in 2018, likely thanks to the increasing consumption of an emerging, affluent middle class.

Interestingly, this amount is almost twice the combined $144 billion that American tourists spent overseas in the same year.

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