B2 High-Intermediate US 1849 Folder Collection
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Isaac Asimov said it best:
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science,
the one that heralds new discoveries,
is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…”
Throughout the history of science,
many major discoveries came accidentally.
Sometimes they came from recognizing
potential in an unexpected product
or even a failed recipe’s waste
– turning accident into serendipity.
Other times, discovery came out of pure
desperation from a seemingly dead-end experiment.
The entire modern chemical industry
can be attributed to an accidental discovery
that started with, well, garbage.
In the 19th century there was a new kind
of waste floating around: coal tar.
This was a stinky, sticky, awful muck
leftover from turning coal into gaslight.
Before others figured out they could
pave roads with the stuff,
it was pretty much useless.
Then the head of London’s Royal
College of Chemistry had an idea.
August Wilhelm von Hoffman noticed
that some of the stuff in coal tar was
similar to the stuff in known medicines.
If he got the chemistry right,
he thought, the world would have cheap,
easy cures for disease.
So, in 1856, he assigned 18-year-old
William Perkin to Team Coal Tar.
Perkin’s job was to try to turn the gunk into quinine.
Quinine was used to treat malaria,
but the drug had to be extracted
from tree bark, which was annoying
and time-consuming.
Perkin knew that quinine and coal
tar had similar chemical formulas.
So, he figured, take some of stuff
in coal tar that’s similar to quinine,
add some other stuff that looks like
little bits of quinine, remove some
useless byproducts, and voila, right?
Not so much.
Perkin’s first attempts got a
reddish-black powder instead
of off-white quinine crystals.
And so he made a couple changes and
tried again with a different coal tar
starting ingredient, thinking a more
simple formula would do the trick.
But wrong again – instead of off-white
he got an even blacker powder.
Oh well, wash it out with a little
alcohol and start over, right?
But wait, when he added the alcohol,
the black powder produced a breathtaking purple.
Perkin was inspired.
He somehow figured out this purple stuff could dye silk.
Perikin saw dollar signs.
At the time, purple-dyed fabrics were
made using exotic crushed snails, so only
the very wealthy could afford to wear purple.
Forget crushed snails,
Perkin just made a purple dye out of garbage!
Perkin called it “mauve” after a French flower,
because “ trashy purple” didn’t sound appealing.
Dreaming of broad profit margins,
Perkin did what many entrepreneurs did:
he quit and started perhaps the
first artificial dye factory.
Within a few years, mauve
had influential fashion fans:
Queen Victoria and Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugénie.
A fashion craze known as “mauve measles”
erupted – suddenly the middle class
could afford a color beyond drab brown,
off-white, or grey.
Perkin amassed a fortunate of over
100 million in today’s dollars and
retired at ripe old age of 36.
On Perkin’s lead, chemical factories
sprang up, dumpster diving nature for
treasure, and this led to even more
profitable accidents.
In 1878, Constantin Fahlberg brought
his gunky coal tar work home with
him – by not washing his hands.
At dinner one night he found his
bread incredibly sweet.
Fahlberg and his labmates realized
the source was a super-sweet
substance derived from coal tar
residue they called saccharin.
The accidental discoveries only grew in the 20th century.
In the late 1930s, Roy Plunkett at Dupont,
was working with refrigerant coolants
named “fluorinated-hydrocarbons”.
One day a new mix annoyingly solidified
into a powder that made stuff so slippery.
Plunkett had stumbled upon new material
called polytetrafluoroethylene,
which Dupont marketed as Teflon.
Teflon was awesome:
it coated metal for a no-stick surface.
Also, Teflon didn’t conduct electricity,
so it was great wire coating.
This led Father and son team
Bill and Bob Gore began slowly
stretching Teflon to make computer cables.
Bill and Bob discovered that Teflon didn’t
stretch evenly, making it hard to work with.
Frustrated, Bob yanked on a hunk
of heated Teflon that suddenly expanded
eight times its size.
Turns out this heated -hunk material,
was over 70% air, so it could breathe
easily while retaining the no-stick
properties of its Teflon parent.
And if you wove this into a fabric,
it proved fantastic for lightweight
raincoats that don’t wrap you in your own sauna.
You know this material as Gore-Tex®.
So much of what we enjoy in the modern
world came from accidental discoveries.
Be it fashion-craze-causing mauve,
sweeteners, Teflon, or Gore-Tex,
the chemists behind this stuff were smart
enough to recognize that they accidentally
stumbled onto something special.
In the process, these moments became
so much more than happy accidents.
They became discoveries that changed the world.
Hey chem-heads, thanks for watching.
If you want more Sam Kean,
check out a video he did for us on
whether mega sharks still exists.
And if you want history, check out
Five black chemists who changed the world.
And regardless, click that there subscribe
button for more chemistry goodness every week.
And a big thanks to the Chemical Heritage
Foundation for helping us out with this video.
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1849 Folder Collection
Eating published on February 9, 2015
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