Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2463

by Andrew Boyd

Today, not-so-dumb luck. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Thomas Edison, one of the great inventors of all time, once said, ďGenius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.Ē But he failed to mention another vital element of the inventive mind: observation.

Great ideas donít spring from empty gray matter. We need to read and learn; to see and experience. The inventive mind is fertile ground, but seeds must be planted if anythingís to burst forth.

Then thereís the flip side of observation. Itís not just grist for the mill. It also helps us recognize invention when we happen to stumble upon it. A surprising number of inventions were accidental — the result of looking for one thing but finding another.

In 1938, DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett was working to create an alternative to the refrigerant Freon. He stored Freon gas for his experiments in canisters that contained iron. Returning to his lab one morning, he discovered the gas and iron had reacted to form a white, flaky, very slippery powder. Rather than throw it out, he studied it. We now know it as the non-stick coating Teflon.

image of Teflon

Artificial sweeteners have a rich history of serendipitous discovery. Itís not entirely surprising. If a researcher inadvertently tastes something sweet — thatís safe and low-calorie, too — itís going to get attention. Saccharin was discovered from research on coal tar when Ira Remsen failed to wash his hands before dinner. Aspartame, the sweetener in Equal and NutraSweet, was uncovered while searching for an anti-ulcer drug.

Picture of sweetenerimage of diet coke
Zero calorie soft drinks courtesy of aspartame

In 1952, a time when very few women could be found in corporate research labs, Patsy Sherman was working on a new kind of rubber for the fuel lines in jet aircraft. Her lab assistant dropped a bottle of an experimental compound on his canvas sneaker. It wouldnít wash off. And over the ensuing weeks they discovered the sneaker didnít get dirty. The result? Scotchgard fabric protector.

Percy Spencer was working with radar equipment for a defense contractor when he discovered that the peanut chocolate bar in his pocket was melting. His observation led to the invention of the microwave oven. Researchers in England were studying a new drug for the treatment of heart disease. It didnít work. But it had a very noticeable side effect on men. Voila! Viagra.

Penicillin. Rogaine. Superglue. Safety glass. Plastic wrap. Silly Putty. Some life-saving; some just fun. We found them when we werenít looking. Lucky? Yes. Just lucky? Absolutely not. For as Louis Pasteur once observed, ďIn the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.Ē

picture of plastic wrap

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For a related episode, see 1032, Microwave Oven.

An updated version of this episode can be found at 3165.

Serendipity. From the Wikipedia web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity. Accessed February 10, 2009.

Patsy Sherman. From the web site of the National Inventors Hall of Fame: http://www.invent.org/Hall_Of_Fame/160.html. Accessed February 10, 2009.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.