Accident and serendipity played their parts in the inventions of penicillin, the World Wide Web and the Segway super scooter. But as Louis Pasteur once noted, "Chance favors only the prepared mind"

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But Robert Friedel, historian of technology at the University of Maryland, cautions that “serendipity is no accident.” What’s important about an unintended event, Friedel asserts, is the creative way it is used. As Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”


Any of us might happen to see a cat pull feathers through a birdcage; but when Eli Whitney saw that, he got the idea of how to comb cotton mechanically. Hence the cotton gin. “Some people are just more likely to pay attention when they see something,” says Rini Paiva of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. “If you have a certain type of brain, you might see something weird and say, ‘Hey, what can I do with this?’ ”


Take Percy Lebaron Spencer. Ahero of World War II for his work in developing radar, Spencer obtained more than 120 patents in his lifetime. One day shortly after the war, he was walking through his lab at the Raytheon Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he stopped briefly by a magnetron—the tube that produces the high-frequency microwaves that power radar. “He was working on things like missile-defense systems,” Paiva says. “But just that second he got a strange feeling. He realized that a candy bar in his jacket pocket had melted.” Odd, Spencer thought. Immediately, he performed a makeshift experiment: he put some popcorn kernels in front of the magnetron. Soon, popcorn was popping all over the place. “There’s actually a drawing of a bag of popcorn in one of Spencer’s patents,” Paiva says. “Other people might just make a note or two in a lab notebook and let it go. But right away Percy Spencer was thinking about what this could be used for—a microwave oven.”


It’s not just scientists hanging around high-tech labs whom accident favors. Hans Lippershey, a 17th-century Dutch eyeglass maker, simply happened—so the story goes—to look through two lenses one day and notice that objects at a distance were greatly magnified. When he put the lenses in a tube, he created the world’s first telescope. John Walker was a pharmacist, not a scientist. One day in 1826 he was mixing potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide together with a stick, but the mixture stuck to the stick. When he tried to scrape the stuff off against the stone floor, it burst into flames. Walker quickly produced for sale the first friction matches, or, to use his catchy name, “sulphuretted peroxide strikables.”


Inspiration can take a lot longer to strike than a match. Frank Epperson was an 11-year-old boy at the dawn of the 20th century when he accidentally left a mixture of soda powder and water out on the back porch one cold night. In it was the stick he’d used as a mixer. Next morning, Epperson found the soda water frozen around the stick. Nearly 20 years passed before he realized that by adding some flavoring, he could concoct a frosty treat, and with that he began to manufacture what he called “Eppsicles.” Eventually the name changed, and he earned royalties on more than 60 million Popsicles. (That success inspired the creation of the Fudgsicle, the Creamsicle and the Dreamsicle.)


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