8 Incredible Discoveries People Just Sort of Stumbled Into
Most important discoveries were made by dedicated people of singular mind and purpose, tirelessly exhausting themselves and their resources to achieve a clearly defined goal. Then there are others made by people with vague agendas who, by luck or circumstance, trip over major finds like a fat kid at a roller rink. This article is about that second type.
A New Species
If you shop on eBay, you know it as a mystery emporium of untold wonders. If you sell stuff there, you know it as the best place to snicker "suckers" under your breath while duping idiots. One of these two perspectives has to give, and usually it's the hopes and dreams of the guy who just bought what he thought was an ancient Egyptian artifact and that was in fact a piece of spearmint gum that had been stuck to the bottom of a middle school desk for the past five years.
"It's either a bug trapped in amber or a scab covered with resin."
But occasionally the tables are turned, and it's the purchaser using his advanced weirdness to screw over the seller. It turns out that all you need is a strange enough hobby and an advanced understanding of science. For instance, in 2008 an entomologist in London named Dr. Richard Harrington bought an amber sample from Lithuania for about $30 dollars. He was interested in seeing what was inside because he'd worked with a "team of people involved in monitoring and forecasting aphids," while the seller was presumably interested in buying lunch because some nerdy dipshit collects dirty, dried tree sap.
"Jurassic Park was such a blessing to my industry."
When the amber arrived, Harrington cracked it open to find an unknown species of aphid 40 to 50 million years old, at which point his pleated slacks erupted with a boner the size of Sir Richard Attenborough's cane in Jurassic Park. Grateful to the auction website for his scientific discovery, he tried to name the aphid Mindarus ebayi after eBay. Fortunately, because of his fellow scientists' outrage at the suggestion, he just named it Mindarus harringtoni after himself.
"Look, man, you can name your kids whatever you want, but you show this insect some fucking respect."
A Lost Charlie Chaplin Film
Charlie Chaplin was one of the first really big movie stars, sort of like an early 20th century version of what Adam Sandler was 10 years ago. Chaplin has influenced pretty much every physical comedian of the past hundred years, so the fact that one of his films could even be referred to as "unknown" is staggering, as is the prospect of actually finding such an item.
"No, it's cool. Hitler hasn't been invented yet."
Flash forward to 2009, and the eBay tables were being flipped once again. That year, British antiques collector Morace Park was searching for antiques on eBay when he came across an old film canister that looked pretty cool. He managed to win the auction, getting it for a little over three British pounds ($5 in real, actual money). Park was only bidding on a canister that he thought looked interesting and fun as a collectible. When he got the canister, he was surprised to find that there was still film inside of it. Looking through the frames, he was able to make out an actor of some distinction -- the aforementioned Charlie Chaplin.
After a bit of researching and annoying film historians with calls, he found out that the film was a previously undiscovered propaganda film from 1916 called "Zepped." It was apparently made for the war effort to help alleviate British fears of zeppelin attacks from Germany, which were a major threat at the time.
After a baffling sequence where Kaiser Wilhelm II walks out of a sausage for no apparent reason, Chaplin defeats a zeppelin by punching it in the face with silent comedy, proving once and for all that zeppelins are nothing to be afraid of. Chaplin famously satirized Hitler in the late stages of his career, so "Zepped" can be seen as the first act in Chaplin's career-long quest to piss off Germany at it's absolute scariest.
Take that, Kaiser Dickhelm.
After confirming the film's authenticity, Park traveled the world to find out more about its production and has since made plans to put it out on DVD. His five-dollar investment has subsequently been valued as high as $160,000. The value is still being debated: Some film historians believe that "Zepped" was spliced together without Chaplin's knowledge, while others have suggested that, even so, the animated sequences feature techniques that weren't supposed to exist until 10 years after the film was made. So either way, it's rewriting film history, and probably more significant than the can that would look cool if you put puffy paint and sparkles on it that Park thought he was buying.
Although some sparkles really would liven this cultural treasure up.
So there you have it, eBay shoppers. You should totally go ahead and buy that tin of Lion King trading cards. Herve Villechaize's foot may be inside or something.
A Jackson Pollock Painting
Before there was eBay, there were thrift stores, where second- and third-hand items are sold to people who are either too poor or too hip to shop anywhere else.
You can put a price tag on hipster cred as long as the price is handwritten in pen by a volunteer.
It's also where naively hopeful fans of Antiques Roadshow used to go to look for hidden gems and instead found copies of The Neverending Story 2 on VHS and games of Connect Four with half the pieces missing. But retired truck driver Teri Horton was only looking for decorations for her apartment when she entered the San Bernadino thrift store that would change her life. After flipping through endless unwanted Thomas Kincaid prints, she came across a weird, trippy painting.
We're pretty sure it's a duck.
While she didn't like it, she decided to pay the $5 asking price and give it to her friend with the weird taste who always liked this sort of bullshit. But when Horton presented it, the friend told her she didn't want it, and Horton was forced to store the painting in her basement. A few years later, as she was trying to sell it during a garage sale, a passing art teacher walked by and told her that it looked like a Jackson Pollock, to which Horton politely responded, "Who the fuck is Jackson Pollock?"
"I the fuck am Jackson Pollock."
The art teacher explained that Pollock was a famous drip painter in the 1950s and that his works were worth millions. Seeing that she was no longer useful to the foul-mouthed old lady, the art teacher politely excused herself without trying to buy the painting, presumably to go play deus ex machina in some other lovable rapscallion's tale of triumph. Horton, meanwhile, set out to have the work verified.
The art world couldn't decide whether it was a real Pollock, but Horton became deeply convinced of the work's authenticity after doing research into how rich that would make her. In the documentary about Horton's journey, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art literally looks down his nose at the painting and quickly declares it a fake. Deciding he hadn't yet cemented himself as the know-it-all villain of this tale of triumph, he clarified that, "She knows nothing. I'm an expert. She's not."
"Look at how fancy this building is!"
Horton eventually used science to prove that art experts are full of shit by matching a fingerprint on the painting to Pollock. Still living on Social Security checks out of a trailer park, Horton was offered $9 million by a Saudi Arabian buyer, scoring a victory for underdogs with moxie. Deciding she would rather star in a cautionary tale about the thin line between determined and crazy, Horton turned down the offer, deciding to hold out instead for the more sensible and realistic figure of $50 million.
Because $9 million won't buy fuck all.
The Demo for the First Velvet Underground Record Ever
The Velvet Underground invented being ahead of your time decades before it was cool. While their albums weren't hugely popular in the 1960s and '70s, people eventually noticed that with each passing year, good music was starting to sound more and more like the Velvet Underground, until eventually the world caught up with them and critics and fans declared them one of the most important rock bands of all time. This isn't all that surprising, since they were fronted by Lou Reed and managed by Andy Warhol, two guys who had already spent most of their lives inventing what you think of as cool today.
They wore flannel back before it was uncool and then cool again.
In 2002, an aspiring cool person named Warren Hill was looking through junk at a sidewalk sale in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City when he found an old acetate record. Acetates are records quickly produced for demo or test purposes and are highly fragile, and they're prized collectibles in certain circles. After weighing the pros and cons of the investment with his long-term financial adviser, Hill threw down 75 cents and took the disc home in a cardboard sleeve. Upon closer inspection, he noticed "The Velvet Underground" written on it.
As the roadie and merch guy for Montreal band the Sunset Rubdowns, Hill knew a thing or two about bands with names that sound vaguely like sexual maneuvers. After speaking with a record label owner in, where else, Portland, Oregon, Hill figured out that he'd just purchased the original demo of the first album the Velvet Underground ever recorded. For less than a dollar.
One year before their first album in 1967, the band made an acetate record demo of what they wanted to do and sent it to Columbia Records, who promptly rejected it. The band was eventually given a second chance, presumably by a record producer from the future, and recorded many of the same tracks for The Velvet Underground & Nico. The acetate was quickly forgotten, until it somehow wound up in a yard sale three and a half decades later. Since Hill wasn't a fan of the Velvet Underground's music, he managed to sell it for $25,000, a move that he will hopefully not live long enough to regret when people recognize just how great the record is when they finally catch up to it decades in the future.
A Cell Phone With Famous Contacts
In Provo, Utah, in 2010, a man went into an electronics store and found a used early model Blackberry on sale for 50 cents. Wanting to stay exactly 10 years behind current technology, he bought the device, only to find that neither the store nor the Blackberry's previous owner had erased any of the numbers on it. As the man looked at the contact names closer, he began to recognize a few. Like NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, former NBA star Patrick Ewing, MLB commissioner Bud Selig, NBA commissioner David Stern, Tom Brokaw, Bob Costas and a slew of millionaires. It had belonged to either some high-ranking figure in the sports industry or a crazed billionaire planning a Star Trek-style menagerie of celebrity warriors.
"Hey, Patrick? Are you available to fight in a cage against Wayne Gretzky?"
While anyone else might have used a celebrity sound board and vague threats of paternity lawsuits to organize one of the greatest athletic events ever held in a Provo backyard, the man was from Utah, where everyone is cursed with good-natured honesty.
The Provo man simply tracked down the phone's original owner, who turned out to be Salt Lake City sports magnate Dave Checketts, former president of the Utah Jazz and New York Rangers and owner of the MLS team Real Salt Lake, and gave it back to him. Checketts, who had lost the Blackberry full of names and confidential emails, was happy to have it back. The Provo man didn't do anything to the Blackberry, but did say he was tempted to call Bob Costas or Marv Albert on their home phones. The two blandest white guys on the list wouldn't have been our choice, but hey, we're not from Utah.
Bob Costas, the oat bran of human beings.
The Rosetta Stone
During the Napoleonic Wars in 1799, French troops in Rashid, Egypt, were quickly digging up earth to rebuild a fort that had been bombarded by the British. Their fervent digging was producing quite a bit of rock debris, which was steadily being tossed aside to hasten the work. An officer named Pierre-Francois Bouchard, who apparently found bombardings boring, started checking out some of the stones. That's when he noticed that one of them had writing on it. "Alright, who's the wise guy?" we like to imagine him asking the troops who were busily digging for their lives, and not giving a shit about the stones getting in the way of their lifesaving shelter. That's when he looked a little closer and noticed that the rocks were covered in three different types of writing, including ancient Egyptian.
Bouchard figured the stone might be something important, so he notified his superiors, who in turn got Napoleon's personal science team in the area, presumably after telling Bouchard to get his lazy ass back to the bombardment shelter.
"This looks like a job for slightly fewer cannons."
As it turns out, the stone was a decree issued by King Ptolemy V transcribed in three different languages. Until that point, historians had no idea how to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the Rosetta Stone (as it would come to be known) had them translated into two languages, one of which was ancient Greek. Ancient Greek was then, and still is today, widely understood by the academic community, so the Rosetta Stone became the key to cracking a language that most people assumed would never be understood and thereby provided us with pretty much everything we now know about ancient Egyptian civilization.
Ansel Adams Photographs
In 2000, an art teacher in California named Rick Norsigian was at a garage sale looking for barbershop chairs when he saw some old photo negatives. He immediately recognized the location as Yosemite, California, having grown up in and around the national park, and decided it might be fun to have some pictures of his old stomping ground. Not barbershop-chair fun, but hey, not every garage sale is a winner.
He bought the two boxes of negatives for $45 dollars, after bargaining them down from $70. Feeling pretty good about the $25 he'd saved, Norsigian brought the boxes home and promptly forgot about them for the next decade.
"Goddamnit, not a barbershop chair in sight."
In 2010, Norsigian was rummaging through his basement when he found the boxes under a pool table. This time, he took a closer look, and noticed that they closely resembled the work of famed photographer Ansel Adams. Adams is widely considered the "father of American photography" by experts, and "the guy who took those pictures on what's her name's wall" by anyone who had sex with that one blonde girl freshman year of college.
She kept her webcam on the whole time.
After some independent snooping, Rick decided the photos might be worth something and moved them from the secure location under his pool table in the basement to a vault. Next, he assembled a team of experts who used handwriting samples to confirm they were Adams' work, and who valued the pictures at over $200 million. Norsigian says he hasn't yet heard from the garage sale owner who sold him the prints for $45. If he does, Norsigian will probably have to admit that he might have been overstating things when he claimed the initial $70 asking price was highway robbery.
"I have a rule: Never pay more than 1/444,444 of the market price."
King Tut's Tomb
The discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter is one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century and certainly the most famous, as it was the first tomb that had been left pretty much untouched since the time it was sealed. Locked safely inside were scores of artifacts, gold, artwork and even garlands of flowers that disintegrated when touched after lying undisturbed for thousands of years.
Because the first rule of archeology is break the shit out of everything. Set it on fire if possible.
But all this would have remained a secret if it weren't for the bold ingenuity of Howard Carter, right? Well no, actually. Carter didn't exactly pinpoint the location and miraculously discover it. In fact, he didn't really discover it at all. In 1922, Carter was convinced there was an unknown tomb somewhere in the Valley of Kings in Egypt, but he had no idea where to even start looking. Other archaeologists of the time flat out told him there were no more tombs left to uncover, but Carter went out anyway because those guys could kiss his ass.
"It's out here somewhere, goddamnit."
After weeks of finding nothing but sand and crushing self-doubt, Carter was growing weary. One day, in the middle of digging up a spot where this time there was totally going to be a tomb, you guys, he sent a local boy to get him water. The boy got Carter his water and then started wandering around close by, randomly poking the sand with a stick. In an almost vaudevillian stroke of fate, the stick hit a stone that, when uncovered, revealed a step. The boy rushed to Carter, who heroically took all the credit and moved his digging efforts over to where he knew the ruins were all along.
"Why are you assholes in the frame? Get out there and 'discover' me a sandwich."
After weeks of removing sand and rock, Carter's team uncovered King Tut's burial chamber, finding innumerable treasures and artifacts, including King Tut himself. The discovery made headlines around the world, and Carter became famous overnight for taking advantage of a poor modern Egyptian boy to plunder the grave of a rich ancient Egyptian boy, because that's what white people do.
For more ridiculous finds, check out 5 Pieces of Junk That Turned Out to be Invaluable Artifacts. Or check out what would've happened if other important items had been trashed.