Serendipitous Inventions Are No Accident

Let’s set something straight for young people.  Serendipitous inventions are not for the most part accidents. There is a lot more to the ingenuity behind their development.

In schools we might tell students about the accidental discovery of penicillin.  But, while the effects were in fact fortuitously discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, it wasn’t until World War II until significant life-saving results were achieved and the drug was being mass-produced. Read the Wikipedia entry for penicillin; dozens of people had a hand in taking the important steps, which tells me that hundreds probably worked on it. This doesn’t sound too accidental to me.

One can read all about Spencer Silver and Art Fry as the inventors of the Post-it note. Yet, as far as I can read Silver invented a low-tack re-positionable adhesive and Fry applied that solution to a bookmark.  The story goes that Silver was actually trying to develop a very strong adhesive, but I have trouble finding a good source for that part of the story.

Read more about the development of the Post-it and you’ll find more about its far from accidental development. Silver thought his adhesive would make for a great spray or coating, but those ideas weren’t recognized as marketable by the company.  Thanks to the promotion of the practice “bootlegging” by the 3M Company, which was the encouragement of people stepping out of their own work and departments to find out what others in the company were doing, Art Fry found an application for the adhesive. He thought it could be a good solution for keeping bookmarks in his hymnal book at church.  It took another few years of internal promotion at 3M, another five years to perfect the product specifications and manufacture it. Ultimately, this story of ingenuity has led to over 4000 Post-it Brand products today.

Let’s make sure that young people don’t learn about these types of developments as strictly fortuitous or accidental. Let’s encourage them to look deeper into things to instead find that they are the results of hard work over long periods of time by many different people of various backgrounds.

Update: 2/22/11 – Here’s an interesting article on about ten “accidental” inventions.


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