Eureka!- page 4 | Science | Smithsonian

Eureka!

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"

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

Plunkett had stored several canisters of TFE on dry ice, to prevent the gas from exploding. When they opened the valve on one of the canisters, nothing came out. They removed the valve, turned the cylinder on its head and shook it. This time something did come out—a white waxy powder.

 

“What the hell is going on, Doc?” Rebok blurted out.

 

What was going on was this: the TFE gas had frozen and transformed into a solid, coating the insides of the canisters. TFE’s simple molecules had combined into long, elaborate chains, forming the giant molecules of a new substance with bizarre, almost unimaginable traits. It was inert to virtually all chemicals, which made it the most slippery material in existence. That slipperiness has proved tremendously useful. Teflon has been incorporated into bomb fuses, clothing, space capsules, heart valves and, of course, one conservative U.S. presidency.

 

At times, serendipity has provided the motivation for invention rather than the invention itself. The switching system that led to the dial telephone, for example, was invented in 1888 by an undertaker with a problem. Almon Strowger’s Kansas City funeral parlor was losing out to a competitor with an unfair advantage. The other undertaker’s wife was a telephone operator, and since every phone call had to be placed by an operator in those days, the other undertaker’s wife was usually one of the first people in town to hear about a death. Then her husband would phone the bereaved to offer his services. This unfair marketing advantage called for action, but the only solution Almon Strowger could come up with was to eliminate the problem—the operator. So to replace human intermediaries, he invented electromechanical switches to direct calls.

 

Some might argue that Strowger’s invention wasn’t really so serendipitous because the dial telephone was bound to come along sooner or later. But was it? Not according to Judith McGaw, a historian who specializes in American technology. “No reputable historian of technology would argue that inventions are somehow destined to happen,” she says.

 

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus