Penicillin was actually discovered a bit by accident. It is credited to scientist Alexander Fleming in 1928. He noticed that certain mold could kill bacteria, which proved that there was an antibacterial agent in the mold.
Fleming did not actually invent penicillin though – he merely made popular the knowledge that there was an anti-bacterial agent in the mold Penicillium notatum. It was originally noticed by French medical student Ernest Duchesne in 1896.
Fleming, however, saw the potential importance of what he named penicillin. In a 1929 paper, he noted that the results he observed could have medical implications if the anti-bacterial agent could be isolated and produced in quantity.
Dr. Howard Florey and Andrey J. Moyer later perfected mass producing penicillin at around the time of World War II. Moyer obtained a patent for the process of it’s mass production.
As you can see, not all inventions are by design. Fleming merely noticed something that was interesting – he didn’t set out to find what many would consider a “miracle drug.” But once he made an observation, he made theorized what the implications of this discovery would be.
Further reading: Wikipedia
While not a singular inventions like others, electricty is arguably the most important innovation ever. It was first noticed by ancient Greeks, who saw the static charge when you rubbed an object against fur. It was not used in the modern sense until quite a few year later, starting in the 18th and 19th centuries.
While most people generally attribute Benjamin Franklin as electricities discoverer, it isn’t entirely accurate. He did, however, lay the ground work for future scientists to make world changing breakthroughs, so there is some degree of accuracy in calling him the father of electricity.
The list of scientists who did groundbreaking work with electricity reads like a who’s who list of famous inventors – Thomas Edison, Allessandro Volta (volt), Andre-Marie Ampere (amp), Georg Simon Ohm (ohms), Nikola Tesla, Samuel Morse, and Alexander Graham Bell, among others. Each of them contributed to our modern electrical technology.
The key each of them exhibits is they don’t try and do all the research themselves – they take an already existing and known principle and extend and apply those theories in new and revolutionary ways.
Further reading: Wikipedia
Most people believe that the light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison. In fact, it was invented in 1809 by Humphry Davy, an English chemist. Unfortunately, it was not very useful, and wasn’t like our modern version of a light bulb.
What Edison did do was invent a carbon filiment that burned for up to 40 hours – a good bit longer than the one invented a year earlier that burned for around 13.5 (and the one before that was even less!). It is said that Edison tried and failed over 2000 times before finally perfecting the filiment.
Edison shows two things in his carbon filiment invention: first, he improved on an existing technology that had the potential to change the world, but lacked a certain aspect. The idea of an electric light was there – the practicality was not. He also showed what seperates your amateur inventer/scientist from your world class one – persistance. He didn’s succeed on his first, second, third, or 1999th try. But when he did, look at what happened.
The cotton gin (short for engine) was invented in 1792 by Eli Whitney. It is actually a rather simple device – it pulls the seeds out of the cotton fibers quickly and easily, and when it was introduced to the southern cotton farms, it increased the amount of cotton production 50 times. While Whitney filed the patent and hence has the credit, there is evidence that a cotton gin may have been built by a man named Noah Homes two years prior.
It was said that Whitney saw a cat clawing at a chicken through a coop and coming away with a paw of feathers, which then led to his idea. Few inventions have been so seemingly simple, and yet have had such economical and even social impacts for years after. The invention of this propelled southern cotton farms to the top of the American economy at the time, and made cotton a major cash crop.
It also can be argued that the invention led indirectly to the Civil War. Because of the increased production of cotton, slave labor was an increasingly valuable commodity. As more and more slaves were brought into the south, tension mounted, eventually resulting in the war. While it is very probably that a Civil War would have happened eventually, it is entirely possible that it would have taken years longer, during which more powerful weapons would have developed, and could have set the entire Nation back years.
Where would we be without the telephone. While the credit for the invention can be disputed, Alexander Graham Bell is generally given credit for it. Oddly, the device that allows us to communicate with anyone in the world met with some resistance from major corporations, who still preferred press releases.
While Bell may not have been the first to invent it, he was one of the men responsible for thrusting it into the public eye. Unlike many other inventions, he had to fight tooth and nail to get credit for it’s use. The moral of this is to never give up when you believe in your invention – even if it is a difficult road, it’s worth it in the end.
In the 1440s, Johann Gutenberg came out with an invention called the printing press. Previously, books were copied down mainly by monks in monastaries, which made them quite rare. Gutenberg’s invention in effect brought the written word to the masses.
In many ways, this brought on a complete revolution. A lasting effect was on the scientific community. Suddenly, scientists working in different locations could popularize their findings with their peers, opening the doors to the scientific revolution. No longer would each scientist have to reinvent the wheel, but instead could build on the research of his peers and predecessors.
It also gave a greater degree of accountability to authors. Since previously each individual page was copied by hand, a text written by one author could vary from book to book. You could never be sure that you were reading the same version as someone else. It also led to greater education for the masses, since now books were more widely available.
Gutenberg may not have set out to revolutionize the way that language was used, but ended up doing just that.