We all make mistakes, and we all have accidents throughout our lives. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Name the greatest of all inventors: Accident.” But what happens when accidents turn into a great discovery? Here, I will examine two accidental inventions that are considered revolutionary and helped change the way we live. There are a number of accidental inventions that fit into this category, but I will be focusing on the discovery of the X-ray and the first practical implantable pacemaker.
The X-ray was discovered by a German physicist by the name of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in November of 1895 (Panchbhai, 2015). Wilhelm requested that all of his research papers be destroyed after his death, and therefore the exact details leading to the discovery of the X-ray are unknown (Panchbhai, 2015). It is widely believed that the discovery came when Wilhelm set down an experiment involving a new electronic tube on top of a book in his laboratory.
Under the book on which Wilhelm placed his electronic tube sat a photographic plate that Wilhelm used in his camera. Wilhelm later used that photographic plate in his camera, and after developing the plate, he was surprised to find an image of a key. Wilhelm searched through the book that had been between the experimental tube and the photographic plate to find a key within its pages (Panchbhai, 2015). After this event, Wilhelm studied the new phenomenon day and night for weeks on end in his laboratory (Panchbhai, 2015). On December 22, 1895, Wilhelm took the first X-ray of his wife’s hand (Panchbhai, 2015).
Since December 1895, countless X-rays have been taken around the world and have helped several medical professionals perform diagnoses, such as in a triage situation (Yang, Ye, Ding, Zheng, & Zhang, 2016). Without the discovery of the X-ray, we would not have one of the most widely used medical diagnostic tools in use today. It is safe to say Wilhelm was not the first person to view the power of the X-ray, but without his research scientists would not have been able to identify the phenomenon.
The pacemaker is the most common device used to treat patients with slow heart rhythms (Cingolani, Goldhaber, & Marbán, 2018). Over 200,000 patients in the United States each year receive a pacemaker implanted for their heart rhythm issue (Cingolani et al., 2018). In the 1950s, a pacemaker was a large external device that needed to be plugged into an outlet for it to operate (Kermode-Scott, 2011). What is ironic about Wilson Greatbatch’s accident is that he was not even trying to invent the implantable pacemaker, but rather he was working on a device to monitor the sounds of the human heart (Kermode-Scott, 2011).
It was while working on his monitoring device that Wilson accidentally picked up and installed the incorrect resister. After powering on the device, it produced a pulse that was similar to a heartbeat (Kermode-Scott, 2011). After this remarkable discovery, Wilson quit his regular job and dedicated the next two years to develop the new pacemaker (Kermode-Scott, 2011). In 1960 Wilson Greatbatch received a US patent for a cardiac pacemaker and in 1961, Medtronic purchased the rights (Kermode-Scott, 2011). The first human to receive a pacemaker designed by Wilson Greatbatch lived for 18 months after the operation (Cingolani et al., 2018).
I focused on these two accidental inventions due to their link to my own research. I am working on non-medical implantable radio frequency identification (RFID) tags I have already used the power of the X-ray. After my first implant, I had an X-ray done on my hand to document the location of the implant. I personally I do not need the use of a pacemaker, but I have used information related to medical implants such as the pacemaker to understand better the process of how implants are used. My other important take-a-way from these accidents is that everything is worth trying. You don’t know what could work until you try, so don’t be afraid to fail.
Cingolani, E., Goldhaber, J. I., & Marbán, E. (2018). Next-generation pacemakers: From small devices to biological pacemakers. Nature Reviews. Cardiology, 15(3), 139-150. doi:10.1038/nrcardio.2017.165
Kermode-Scott, B. (2011). Wilson Greatbatch. BMJ : British Medical Journal (Online), 343. doi:10.1136/bmj.d6765
Panchbhai, A. (2015). Wilhelm conrad rontgen and the discovery of x-rays: Revisited after centennial. Journal of Indian Academy of Oral Medicine and Radiology, 27(1). doi:10.4103/0972-1363.167119
Yang, L., Ye, L.-g., Ding, J.-b., Zheng, Z.-j., & Zhang, M. (2016). Use of a full-body digital x-ray imaging system in acute medical emergencies: A systematic review. Emergency Medicine Journal : EMJ, 33(2), 144. doi:10.1136/emermed-2014-204270