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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“There tends to be a cleaning-up of the record,” says Arthur Molella. “People like to say, ‘Yeah, we knew it all along.’ They put the best face on it, in hindsight. But the world is full of chance.”


In such a world, timing is everything. A great discovery can turn into a spectacular flop if it has the misfortune to come along at the wrong moment. Take the amazing Video-Harp, for example. Chris Patton, a 52-year-old composer and musician who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, says he is “the first professional VideoHarp player in the world . . . and also the last.” Made of amber Plexiglas and black aluminum, the instrument straps over his shoulders like a futuristic accordion. It responds to the movement of Patton’s hands, using a system of mirrors and optical sensors to translate light and shadow into synthesized music.


The VideoHarp was created in the late 1980s by South Carolina inventor Paul McAvinney and his grad student Dean Rubine. Only eight instruments were ever made. “The main problem was a sudden scarcity of optical sensors,” McAvinney says. “Because of that, a VideoHarp ended up costing $9,000—too expensive for the market.” Today sensors are both plentiful and cheaper, so McAvinney could make a better VideoHarp for much less. “But by now my resources are pretty well drained,” he says with a sigh. Still, McAvinney has faith that the future may have an accident or two up its sleeve. “Who knows?” he says. “With a little luck, maybe someday they’ll be playing VideoHarps on the shores of a distant planet.”

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