Today, we ask if successful inventors are just
lucky. 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.
This afternoon an
interviewer asked me if invention is a matter of
luck. I hadn't thought much about luck, but the
question woke me up. We certainly find lots of
Those little yellow Post-it
notes were invented after a chemist
accidentally created a glue that wouldn't dry. That
was blind luck, no doubt. But it did no good until
someone recognized how glue that doesn't dry can
The history of chemical process technology teems
with examples like that -- everything from rayon to
dynamite to vulcanized rubber. In each case, an
accident happened -- maybe one that'd befallen a
hundred other people. But only one person was
prepared to recognize possibility when it was out
Louis Pasteur discovered that molecules with the
same chemical structure can be either left or right-handed. Two
otherwise identical molecules can have radically
different properties. That may've just been the
result of a lucky observation. But Pasteur pointed
out that "chance favors only the prepared mind."
So: to receive luck we have to prepare our minds. A
good invention is like a good joke. The joke teller
leads you out on one plane of reality. Then,
suddenly, in the turn of a phrase, you find
yourself standing in another reality entirely.
The old Burma-Shave ads
did that. Six red signs along the road: "IF
HARMONY, IS WHAT, YOU CRAVE, THEN GET, A TUBA,
Burma- Shave." In 8 seconds of drive time we're
carried from harmony in human relations, to musical
harmony, to a tube of shaving cream creating
harmony on your face. It may've been simple-minded
humor, but recognizing those lurches of meaning
delighted us anyway.
In that sense, James Watt caught on to a joke when
he improved the steam engine. For 70 years we'd
squirted cold water into cylinders filled with hot
steam. Steam condensed and sucked the piston down.
But that water cooled the cylinder. You wasted half
your steam warming it back up to repeat the cycle.
It took Watt years to see.
Then he caught on. He realized that if we led steam
out into a separate condenser, the cylinder would
stay hot. The condenser would always be cold. All
at once, Watt doubled steam engine efficiencies.
Now, was Watt lucky? Of course he was. But that
same lucky perception had lain in wait for hundreds
of engine-builders before him. Luck is before us,
all the time. We just have to recognize it when it
"Sure," I told my interviewer, "invention's a
matter of luck." But oh, how few of us are able to
let go of our limitations and open our eyes to the
ever-present gift of good fortune.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds