You wouldn’t think something as unscientific as accident could have played much of a role in the life of Tim Berners-Lee, the brilliant British physicist and computer scientist who in 1991 invented the World Wide Web. He conceived it and still controls a lot of how it operates from his unimposing office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1999, Time placed Berners-Lee on its list of the “100 Persons of the Century.” No fewer than seven different universities have awarded him honorary degrees.
But the great breakthrough engineered by this icon of cyberspace did occur, in part, by chance. “There was an element of serendipity,” says Arthur Molella, director of the LemelsonCenter for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “At first, he was just noodling around, trying to find a way to organize his research files. So he began to develop a tool just for his own personal use.”
The “tool” was a software program that, as Berners-Lee puts it, was “really useful for keeping track of all the random associations one comes across in real life, and [which] brains are supposed to be so good at remembering—but sometimes mine wouldn’t.” He called it Enquire, and it worked so well, creating effective linkages between huge amounts of information, that it eventually became the basis for the revolution we now casually refer to as the Web. “It would be akin to a carpenter building a little cabinet for himself,” Molella says, “and suddenly discovering he could store the entire world inside the thing. There was quite a bit of luck in it.”
The element of chance has helped produce many of the most important innovations in modern life. Many are created by it; others become successful because of it, and some fail for the same reason. As Mark Twain, an inventor himself, once scribbled in his notebook: “Name the greatest of all the inventors. Accident.” If you don’t believe it, go into your kitchen and look around. There might be a Teflon pan on the stove, a microwave oven above it, Post-its sticking out of cookbooks, matches in a drawer; Coke, Popsicles and ketchup stashed in a refrigerator. Accident played a role in their invention.
Happenstance works in many ways. One is the observed event: the “invention” is the way the mind seizes upon an inconspicuous occurrence. The best known of these is Alexander Fleming’s role in the discovery of penicillin. One day in 1928 some mold drifted through an open window in a London hospital and landed in Fleming’s petri dish, where he’d placed a culture of staphylococcus bacteria. What Fleming did next got him and two colleagues a Nobel Prize in 1945: he looked through the microscope. What he saw was the mold efficiently destroying the germs. Presto! The creation of penicillin began with that unlikely turn of events.