Eureka!- page 5 | 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"

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(Continued from page 4)

Although the need for an invention can seem quite obvious, it usually doesn’t appear so until after the fact. Mark Twain, who patented such far-from-obvious devices as an “Improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments,” once put it this way: “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”

 

Indeed, some of the most consequential inventions in history were dismissed as the brainchildren of cranks. Thomas Edison once thought that his own great coup, the phonograph, had little commercial value. In 1876, an executive with the Western Union Company declared that “this ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

 

What about putting sound into movies? Harry Warner of Warner Brothers was epigrammatic in his misjudgment: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” he said.

 

As for television’s prospects, Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox claimed in 1946 that TV “won’t be able to hold any market after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Even as late as 1977, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation avowed, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

 

Or, take Xerox machines. In 1938, Chester Carlson got tired of making copies with carbon paper. In his makeshift laboratory in Queens, the New York patent agent came up with a way to make copies automatically and took his invention to IBM. People wouldn’t want to use a “bulky machine,” the wise men at IBM said, when they could use carbon paper. Of course, the process Carlson invented, xerography, continues to churn out billions of copies yearly.

 

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