Top 10 Most Famous Lab Discoveries in History

Science has brought us many exciting discoveries. Laboratories are great places to make discoveries, since they are generally sterile and equipped with what is needed to perform experiments. Sometimes, lab experiments yield the results expected, and at other times, lab discoveries have been made by accident. But no matter how they are made, some lab discoveries have become a regular part of life. Here are 10 famous lab discoveries that history remembers — and you will probably recognize:

  1. 662px-Staphylococcus_aureus_(AB_Test)Penicillin: This is one of the most common treatments for bacterial infections. A whole range of antibiotics was developed as a result of the discovery for penicillin. In 1928, when Alexander Fleming, a Scot, was researching the flu, he found that a mold had grown in one of his petri dishes. He happened to be growing a staphylococcus bacteria in that dish, and he saw that the mold was attacking and killing the bacteria. He realized that certain organisms could be killed by the mold, and the blue-green fuzzy discovery led to the development of penicillin.
  2. Anna_Berthe_RoentgenX-Rays: We see x-rays used all the time to assess what is going on inside the body. From looking at bone fractures to looking at dental work, x-rays offer an inside look, especially of bone material. Many scientists in the 19th century were working in labs to discover the penetration of rays emitted by electrons when they strike a metal target. In 1895, though, Wilhelm Röntgen was playing around with the idea and put different objects in front of the resultant radiation. He looked over and saw an image of his bones on the wall. The first “medical” x-ray was taken by Röntgen — of his wife’s hand. Later, the difference between x-rays and gamma rays became known, and x-rays have been used in a number of discoveries in the lab, as well as for searching the cosmos for information on the origin of the universe.
  3. ADN_animationDNA: Every junior high school student knows that DNA is an essential part of our genetic make up. And most people are familiar with its characteristic double helix design. While DNA was first isolated in 1869 by Friedrich Miescher, its structure remained a mystery until 1953. Many people in multiple labs were trying to discover the structural nature of DNA. Who should get the credit for the discovery of the double helix structure is a bit murky. While James Watson and Francis Crick, along with Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the discovery, many are still in favor of Rosalind Franklin as being the discoverer (she was dead at the time of the awarding of the Nobel Prize, and the prize was only presented to living recipients at the time). Supporters of Franklin point to an x-ray picture of DNA she had taken, and that was shown — against her wishes — to others. The debate over who should get credit continues to rage today, and factors such as when papers on the subject were published, as well as who might have stolen information from whom, are taken into account. But, generally, all of those working on DNA at the time are credited now with contributions.
  4. Microwave.750pixMicrowaves for cooking: There are few appliances that have changed life the way the microwave oven has. Indeed, many people are able to prepare fast, easy meals with the help of the microwave oven. It has become a staple in many kitchens, and there are few homes indeed without a microwave oven. However, the idea of using microwaves for cooking was discovered quite by accident. Magnetrons, which emit microwaves, were used in WWII for radar. They were instrumental in detecting Nazis. After the war, magnetrons were studied in a number of labs, including at Raytheon. One engineer, Percy Spencer, had a candy bar in his pocket. The magnetron in the room melted the candy bar, and scientists realized that this could be an effective way to quickly cook food. Then all they had to do was develop the technology and make it portable and safe for home use.
  5. Transistor-photoTransistor: There are few discoveries as important in modern history as those leading up to the development of the transistor. If it is electronic, and it has memory, or it needs to transmit, or do just about anything else, it has a transistor. The transistor is the basis for all of the advancements in electronics seen for the last 60 years. The transistor was preceded by a vacuum tube that amplified signals, specifically for telephone lines. However, the vacuum tube was inefficient and overheated quickly. Bell Labs began working on the problem after WWII, and in 1948 unveiled the transistor to very little fanfare. However, those who worked at Bell Labs at the time, and went on to form other companies, took their knowledge with them, and the beginnings of Silicon Valley and the technology revolution were underway.
  6. 800px-Regular_strength_enteric_coated_aspirin_tabletsAspirin: If you have a headache, you might reach for the aspirin. And, aspirin is also known as a drug that can help in the event of heart attack. Aspirin is a very successful drug, and even all of its qualities are not fully understood. But what is understood is that the synthesis of aspirin has made for the treatment of a number of ailments. While some of the chemicals found in aspirin have been known for centuries, the discovery of a way to synthesize a pure form of aspirin is relatively recent. The official record states that Felix Hoffmann discovered how to synthesize aspirin in 1897. However, new records indicate that it was actually his supervisor, Arthur Eichengrun, who discovered it. There is speculation that Eichengrun was erased in all references to the celebrated German brand due to the fact that he was a well known Nazi — which is odd since he was a Jew. In the end, Hoffmann got the glory, but we all get the benefits.
  7. BatteriesBattery: If you want to power a device, chances are you know all about changing the battery. The discovery that you could stack voltaic cells on top of each other and end up with a device full of stored energy used to power things changed the world as we know it. First of all, in the 1780s, an Italian, Luigi Galvani, found that touching two pieces of metal to a frog’s leg caused it to twitch. He created a crude circuit and shared it with is friend Alessandro Volta, who got the brilliant idea to modify the circuits into cells and stack them on top of each other. Napoleon loved it. And today, so do the rest of us.
  8. FibreopticFiber Optics: In 1870, Irish scientist John Tyndall performed an experiment in which he observed that water could carry sunlight. All he needed to show this was a couple of buckets, a sunny day, and a tap. His lab discovery formed the basis for another lab discovery — this one by Charles Kao in the 1960s — that glass tubes could carry light. Channeling light over long distances is the whole point when it comes to fiber optics. And now we use them for a number of applications, notably communications. Fiber optics has made high speed Internet and cable possible, since tubes of glass or plastic are more efficient signal transmitters that metal wires. The work has connected the world, and formed the basis for other technologies. Kao was honored in 2009 with a Nobel Prize in physics.
  9. 800px-StudijskifotoaparatCamera: The principles upon which the modern camera are based have been known since the 11th century, when the Arabic scientist Ibn al-Haytham describe the camera obscura. This device was more of a projector. The more modern version of the camera, which was invented by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, used principles discovered by Johann Zahn in 1685 and Jacques Daguerre and William Fox Talbot, both of whom figured out how to use different processes to record an image. Niépce discovered that a mixture of chalk and silver darkened when exposed to light, and that it would retain its permanence. Later on, George Eastman used his company, Kodak, to make photography quite popular. And, thanks to the digital age, images are even easier to capture.
  10. 480px-Einstein1921_by_F_Schmutzer_4Time Dilation: As part of his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein proposed the phenomena known as time dilation. This takes place when time is experienced differently by different people, due to their relative velocity, or due to a difference in distance to a gravitational mass. The common illustration of this is that two people carry clocks that are similar in make and function. They are set for the same time initially, but due to difference in location relative to a nearby gravitational mass, or due to motion, there comes a point when each person observes that the other person’s clock is in error. It is a dizzying concept, but a cool one. And it has been shown in the lab, using particle accelerators, measuring Doppler shift, physically flying atomic clocks around the world, and even GPS.
This entry was posted in Discoveries, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.