Thursday, July 04, 2013

Sepia Saturday 184: Serendipity

On July 6th, 1885 Louis Pasteur successfully treated a boy with rabies vaccine. The prompt  for Sepia Saturday this week is this plaque commemorating the occasion.

Pasteur discovered the principle of vaccination when he inoculated chickens with cholera bacteria. The chickens should have died; however, they did not. They were sick for a while but recovered. When he used a fresh culture of the bacteria in the repeat experiment, the chickens did not get sick. Serendipitously, he had discovered vaccination.

What is serendipity? It's often referred to as the situation when one is in search of a certain thing and in the process, something else of greater or equal value results. 

Horace Walpole, incidentally - the  inventor of the Gothic novel, coined the word "serendipity". 

From The Free Dictionary. Word History: We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that "this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...."

So many of the products and processes we use were discovered serendipitously, the list would fill pages. I limited my list below to the everyday household items I personally take for granted every day. Serendipitous discovery I notice comes about when the discoverer is breaking a rule or indulging in some kind of moral lapse. The person is out of the groove and out of the groove is where new things happen. 
    Arthur Fry: Wikimedia Commons
    • Accident: The invention of Post-It notes is legendary.  In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silva, a scientist at 3M was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive, but instead he accidentally created a "low-tack", reusable, pressure sensitive adhesive that has been characterized as "a solution without a problem". Arthur Fry saw an application. Eventually they became Post-It's. Even the yellow color was accidental. A lab next door to the Post-it team only had scrap yellow paper around which was initially used and the yellow color became a hallmark of the product.  
    • Rule breaking: Aspartame was discovered by James Schlatter while working in a lab trying to discover an anti-ulcer drug. He licked his fingers and tasted sweetness...incredible sweetness. His bad laboratory practice (never lick your fingers because the items you are working with might be poisonous) resulted in an amazing discovery.

    • Goofing around:  Percy LeBaron Spencer of the Raytheon Company was walking past a radar tube and he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. Realizing that he might be on to a hot new product he playfully placed a small bowl of popcorn in front of the tube and it quickly popped all over the room.
      Early Radar range.

    Van de Kamp's Saratoga Chip Shop
    •  Revenge: The first potato chip was invented by George Crum at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York, on August 24, 1853. He was fed up with the constant complaints of a customer who kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen because they were too thick and soggy. Crum decided to slice the potatoes so thin that they couldn’t be eaten with a fork. Against Crum’s expectation, the customer was ecstatic about the new chips. They became a regular item on the lodge’s menu under the name “Saratoga Chips". I worked for many years for Van de Kamp's - the company began by selling Saratoga Chips from a store front in downtown L. A.
      Wikimedia Commons

    •   Carelessness: In 1905, an entrepreneurial little 11-year-old boy with a soda-making hobby left his equipment outside in the cold all night.  When little Frank Epperson came out the next day, he found that that his stirring stick was frozen upright in his now solid soda.  He called it the “Epsicle.”  19 years later, he patented his "epsicle" “ and only renamed it  "popsicle" at the urging of his children.
      Frank Epperson:
    • Giving Up:  Lee and Perrin's Worcestershire sauce: Two chemists in Worcester, England, were approached by a customer to create a sauce he'd sampled in India. John Wheeley Lea and William Perrins' creation was so horrible tasting that they abandoned it in the basement. Two years later, the pair found the sauce had mellowed and that it flavored meats wonderfully. It went on sale in 1837.
      Wikimedia Commons
    • Laziness: Chocolate Chip Cookies: One fateful day in 1930, a little-known inn in Massachusetts ran out of baking chocolate.  Too lazy to run to the store, what was Ruth Wakefield to do except shrug and break some semi-sweet chocolate chunks into her chocolate cookie dough  instead?  After baking, she noticed that the chocolate hadn’t mixed in with the dough and found this change to be quite delicious!  This accidental innovation made her Toll House Inn a household name.
    Once these discoveries were made, they had to land in the lap of someone who recognized their worth; to take advantage of good things that appear unexpectedly and to see things changing and adapt. Serendipitous invention requires a mind wise enough to see patterns and apply knowledge to them; above all, a mind that is stimulated by mistakes and unbound by fixed thinking - willing to learn. 

    128 years later, Pasteur's famous quote still sounds good... "chance favors only the prepared mind”. And finally here's a wonderful chart of the process published with this fine paper: Maximizing Serendipity

    Read more stories inspired by the Louis Pasteur plaque here: Sepia Saturday

    The Goddess of Serendipity:
    Delicious Foods Discovered by Accident/Yummly:
    Marvelous Mistakes:When food goes wrong, sometimes it's right:
    Top 10 Accidental Discoveries :


    1. You are right about good lab pratice. At home I always throw my wife's hospital issue ball points away as I am suspicious someone may have stirred a test tube of blood or urine with it in her lab.

      1. Good idea. I'm immediately disposing of all mine of unknown origin now that you've raised this question. Ugh.

    2. I knew the story of post-it notes and the microwave, but the others are all new to me. Fun stories!

    3. I'm familiar with the story of the Post-It notes; the rest I read only today from your post. This was fun.


    4. What a great take on the theme...Serendipity!

    5. I never knew the origin of the word "serendipity." So many good serendipitous discoveries. I would love to see the popcorn popping all over the room.

      1. I think Sri Lanka should have stuck with the name Serendip. Easier to pronounce.

    6. I never heard of any of these before. Very funny.

    7. You learn something (or many somethings) new every day! Great post. A fun way to learn things you never knew. Thanks for sharing the knowledge!

    8. A fun and interesting take on the theme and loved the way you tied it all together!

    9. The Lee & Perrin origin was new to me. Fun post and educational too.

    10. An entertaining ride from the prompt picture onwards. I've learned some new things today.

    11. Wow, how interesting, especially the chip shop, I know the company name but that is new to me. Great photos, so much information, thanks!

    12. The idea of the accidental invention is a neat pickup on this week's theme. However I don't think many bronze plaques will be raised for the discovery of Post-it notes or Popsicles. Chocolate chip cookies on the other hand, which have probably saved almost as many lives as pasteurization and rabies vaccine, definitely deserves a commemorative monument!

    13. I think there's a mistake in your post. It was Romy & Michelle that invented the post-it notes, not Arthur Fry.