INVENTORS BY ACCIDENT (Feb, 1950)
INVENTORS BY ACCIDENT
A mishap can make you a millionaireâ€” if you’re alert enough to recognize a million-dollar idea when it hits you.
By Robert Cutler
WOULD you recognize a million-dollar idea if you fell over it? More than one man owes his good fortune to an accident â€”plus his own ability to learn and profit from it. Many inventions we enjoy today are the direct results of mishaps that have made their “victims” rich.
With Harry Waters of St. Louis, though, it was not one accident but a whole series that brought him a fortune. First, a stenographer in his office spilled a glass of water on him. Due for an appointment, Waters had to get a quick pressing jobâ€”not quick enough, however, to prevent his being late. So he had to take a taxi, even though he was nearly broke and desperate for money.
During the ride, his recent mishap drew Waters’ attention to the taxi driver’s badly wrinkled necktie. That started him thinking about the possibility of a wrinkleproof tie. Meanwhile, the driver, missing the correct street, had started to turn around in the middle of Delmar Avenue. Then came a more serious accident. A streetcar rammed into the cab and Waters was severely injured.
The final accident occurred as Waters lay on the operating table in the emergency room of the hospital. As he began breathing the anesthetic, the rubber respirator bag on the tank caught his eye. With each breath the bag alternately wrinkled up tight and straightened out again. Just before he lost consciousness, that accidental glance at the breathing bag made him think: “Why, that bag is wrinkleproof!”
That was itâ€”his idea for keeping ties from wrinkling. You’ve probably worn one of the wrinkleproof neckties with rubber-impregnated linings that soon remedied Waters’ lack of money.
The name for this faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident is “serendipity.” The word comes from an old fairy tale about three princes of Serendip (Ceylon) who were constantly making lucky discoveries of this sort. Serendipity pays well.
As an example, fifteen-year-old John Alby Spencer had a job in a Maine lumber camp firing an old steam boiler. It burned up wood so quickly that he scarcely had time to take care of other duties before it was necessary to dodge back and look at the fire. Then one day Spencer noticed that whenever the fire started to burn very hot there would be a sharp, metallic sound. And whenever the fire started to cool off he would hear the same noise. That was the accident. Admittedly it didn’t seem very significantâ€”but it made Spencer more than a million dollars.
Spencer was curious. He investigated and discovered that expansion and contraction of the metal as it heated and cooled was causing the clean-out door on the firebox to belly out and snap back.
Did he think that this phenomenon would make him wealthy? As a matter of fact, he wasn’t thinking of money at allâ€”just of a way to save himself trouble. He placed a log against the clean-out door before leaving the stove. When the fire died down, the door snapped back into shape and kicked the log to the floor. This made a loud noise, which signaled him to come back.
A number of years later Spencer applied that accidental discovery in an invention that made his fortune. Using a little disc made of two metals with different rates of thermal expansion, he made a thermostatic switch. Normally a metal point on the disc rests against a stationary terminal, completing an electrical contact. When the temperature rises beyond a certain point, however, the disc flicks over and the electrical contact is broken.
First used in an automatic, temperature-controlled flatiron, the Spencer thermostatic switch today is included in electrical appliances of all kinds, motors, water heaters, toasters, etc. Millions of them have been sold.
As for the Spencer company, its financial rating is tops. And all because an alert boy happened to hear a little noise, tracked it down and applied his discovery.
Then, too, there was Elihu Thomson, a young teacher who was demonstrating the various forms of electricity during a routine physics lecture at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Thousands of other teachers had rigged Leyden jars for the discharge of static. But there was a hitch in Thomson’s demonstration. During the discharge of electricity the ends of the two primary wires came into contact. Thomson gave them a flick to separate them, but they stuck together.
Do you see a possible million in this? Well, Thomson looked more closely. What he saw was really worth his attention. The metal of the wires was fused together. Thomson had discovered electrical welding, today widely used in industry.
Accidents happen to all of us. We don’t all see the same things in them, however. In at least one case, the same accident led two men to two entirely different inventions. These two men happened to spill bottles of collodion, or liquid court plaster, which consists of nitrated cellulose in solution with alcohol and ether. One of these bottles was spilled in Albany, New York, by a young printer, John Wesley Hyatt. The other was spilled in Lyons, France, by another young man, Hilaire de Chardonnet, an assistant to the famous Louis Pasteur.
Hyatt did not notice anything unusual when that bottle of collodion spilled in Albany. But a few days later he cut his finger and hunted for his liquid court plaster. The bottle was empty. On the shelf around it, though, a tough, hard sheet of strange material had dried.
At that time the game of billiards was at its peak of popularity. But ivory for balls was so scarce that a manufacturer had offered a $10,000 prize for a substitute. Hyatt thought he had one. He found a way to mold the nitrocellulose together with camphor and alcohol, forming a clear, hard substance which be called “celluloid.” Direct consequences of Hyatt’s discovery include not only the celluloid collar of former jokebook fame but the mammoth photography and motion-picture industries.
Now, what about that other bottle of collodion, spilled in Lyons? The young Frenchman, de Chardonnet, left the sticky mess for a while. Later, when he returned to clean it up, it was partly dry. Accidentally his fingers slipped into the slimy stuff. As he raised his hands, long filaments strung out from them.
De Chardonnet, a trained observer, examined them carefully. His mind clicked. Starting from collodion, his experiments yielded the first artificial silk. This became the basis of the rayon industry which today has a volume of more than a billion dollars a year in the United States alone.
Though celluloid made possible the tremendous expansion of the photographic industry, the story of photography goes back farther than that. About a hundred years ago scientists all over the world were conducting experiments to perfect the art. Men had found ways of producing photographic images, but they were still dim and faint. The problem was to develop them more clearly.
One of the experimenters was a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, who worked with his partner, Claude Niepce. One morning Daguerre entered the laboratory, went to the chemical cabinet, and took out a plate which Niepce had exposed and left the night before. Daguerre nearly dropped the plate in his surprise. It already was developedâ€”developed as no other plate had ever been. On it was a clear, sharp image.
Daguerre rushed excitedly to the cabinet and looked inside but found no new chemical there. There were many chemicals in the cabinet. One of them must be the developing agentâ€”but which? That evening he removed one chemical from the cabinet and put in another exposed plate. In the morning he found that plate developed, too. One chemical was eliminated. The investigation went on night after night, and morning after morning the story was the same: The plate was always developed.
Finally only one chemical remained. “This must be the one,” Daguerre told Niepce. Sure enough, the next morning the plate was developed.
Jubilant, both experimenters tried the chemical on another exposed plate. Unfortunately, the chemical had absolutely no effect.
Puzzled, Daguerre and Niepce decided to try the empty cabinet on an exposed plate. Surprisingly, in the morning the plate was developed. They examined the cabinet carefully. There, on one of the shelves was a little loose mercury, spilled from a bottle. Mercury was the developing agent.
In this accidental fashion the first practical photographic method was discovered. Long since obsolete, it was nevertheless the beginning of the photographic industry. For years, all photographs were known as Daguerreotypesâ€”after Louis Daguerre, who accidentally stumbled on the secret.
In turn, the development of photography was responsible for another accidental discovery. Professor Wilhelm von Roentgen, teacher of physics at Wurzburg, Germany, and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, was experimenting with cathode rays. Called to lunch during one of his experiments, he left the tube on his desk and forgot to turn off the electricity. That same day he happened to take some photographs. When he developed them, he was startled to see, in the center of one picture, the silhouette of a key.
After a search, he found his office key inside of a book on his desk, where it had been used as a bookmark. Sitting down, he carefully thought over the whole strange group of circumstances. The key had been in the book. The book had been on the desk. And, come to think of it, one of his photographic plate-holders also had been on the desk and under the book. The cathode-ray tube had ‘ been left burning on the desk and also on the book. The tube must have given off rays of some sort that had penetrated the book and plate-holder to affect the photographic plate and leave the picture of the key. He tried duplicating the experiment. It worked. Before long he made a photograph of the bones of his hand.
Von Roentgen called this new, strange ray the X-ray, because it was unknown. As everyone knows, the X-ray plays an important part in modern life, being used in both medicine and industry.
Daguerre accidentally discovered exactly what he was looking for. Von Roentgen accidentally discovered something entirely unexpected. So did Dr. Waldo Semon, a research man for the B. F. Goodrich Company. Dr. Semon was trying to develop an adhesive which would bond rubber to metal. He carried out numerous experiments in which simple molecules were caused to polymerize or join together like links in a chain. These linked molecules formed products which he hoped would do the job.
In one of these experiments vinyl chloride, ordinarily a gas, was polymerized to give a tough, resinous product. When he heated this substance, Semon found that he had prepared something strange. It was much too thick to be an adhesive. In fact, he was having trouble getting it out of the test tube. As he struggled to remove the contents, the test tube slipped from his grasp and shattered on the floor. Semon was amazed by what he saw then. The contents bounced. Retrieving it from the floor and kneading it between his fingers, he formed a small ball. Then, as his colleagues gaped in surprise, he proceeded to bounce the ball down the hallway.
Further investigation revealed that the new substance, though something like rubber, had other astonishing qualities. Unlike natural rubber it was noninflammable. It was practically impervious to oil or gasoline and its surface sealed tight against the corrosive effect of almost every known acid. Because of this last quality, it was called Koroseal, a substance discovered by pure chance. Millions of dollars worth of this remarkable product now . are being used every year in industry, garden hose, backyard play ponds, curtains, bedspreads, baby pants and other products.
E. Howard Armstrong’s father thought he was too young to have bumped into a million-dollar idea. Howard, who was still in college was a pioneer radio bug. His equipment littered the entire attic of the family home in Yonkers, New York.
One day Howard had just rewired his homemade set, as was the periodic custom of every real ham. Tuning in on some signals, he was amazed to hear them without even taking the earphones from the table. Young Armstrong examined his circuit painstakingly. The only significant thing he found was that he had rearranged the plate coil and grid coil of the tube so that they were close.
Apparently part of the energy from the plate circuit was feeding back into the grid circuit of the same tube, and thus building up the signals. After checking for two months he knew that he had made a big discovery. When he asked his father for money to get a patent, his father scoffed: “Why, you’re still just a kid! You’d better pay more attention to your studies and stop fooling around with that wireless thing.”
Howard, however, still tried to protect his invention. Making up a detailed wiring diagram, he had this notarized. It was this document which later upheld Armstrong’s claim to discovery of the regenerative circuit, widely used in commercial radio.
Everyone has accidents but only a few make them pay off. The accidents described above have been worth millions. You, too, can stumble into a fortune.
If you want to be an inventor, you may be lucky even when you appear to be “unlucky.” For accidents are always happening to unlucky people. Just be sure, when that next accident happens to you, you’re alert enough to recognize that million dollars when it pops up and hits you right in the face.