Case Study: Serendipitous Inventions

“Patentability shall not be negatived by the manner in which the invention was made” (emphasis added).

The statement above is the final sentence of the federal statute dealing with conditions for patentability (35 USC 103). Aside from the use of a confusing and uncommon verb: “negatived”, the sentence paves the way for a particular type of invention –Serendipitous Inventions. They are sometimes called accidental inventions because they were the result of some unanticipated, chance event. The patent files are filled with important inventions that were discovered as a result of some chance event.

Louis Pasteur expressed it well:

Chance favors the prepared mind

Microwave oven: One of the best examples of such a chance event triggering an important invention is the invention of the microwave oven. In 1945, the inventor, Percy Spencer, was studying the function of a magnetron, a key element in the recent invention of radar. One day, while walking through the magnetron laboratory, he felt an odd sensation and realized that a chocolate bar in his pocket was melting. He realized that microwaves from the magnetron might be the source of heat. He tested the idea using popcorn, and other foodstuffs. The final result can be seen today in most of todays kitchens: the microwave oven.

Teflon®: a heat-resistant, stick-resistant plastic, used for anti-stick coatings on various surfaces; best known for its role in the manufacture of anti-stick frying pans. In April 1938, Roy Plunkett, a DuPont researcher, was working on the synthesis of an improved gas refrigerant. When he opened the canister containing the reaction product, he found, not a gas, but a solid – a white flaky powder. His experiment Had not worked. Instead of throwing it out and starting over again, he spent several days analyzing and testing the material. It was a new polymer with valuable and most unusual properties. Chemists call it polytetrafluoroethylene. DuPont marketed it under the trademark Teflon®.

Vulcanization: In the early 1800s crude rubber was being imported from the tropical regions to New England in North America and to Europe and used in the manufacture of a variety of products. Unfortunately, the crude rubber melted in the heat of summer and became stiff and frozen in the cold winter weather. As a material of manufacture it was practically useless.

Charles Goodyear intrigued by the problem began a series of experiments to find a solution. In 1839, after five years of unsuccessful efforts, he found the answer – by accident. He was experimenting with an admixture of sulfur and crude rubber when he accidentally dropped a lump of the mixture on a hot stove. When he removed it from the stove he found it strengthened and still pliable. He had found the solution. He named his improved product “vulcanized rubber”. He spent the next few months optimizing his process and patented it in 1844. US Patent No. 3633.

The Popsicle: Frank Epperson was just eleven years old when he accidentally invented the Popsicle. One winter night at his home in San Francisco, he was making a glass of soda pop and was stirring the drink when he was interrupted. He left it on the porch and forgot about it. During the night the temperature hit a record low. When he found the drink the next morning, it was frozen with the stirring stick still in it, extending out like a handle. When he pulled the stick out, the frozen soda pop came with it. The Popsicle had been born!

The above examples are just a small sample of the many important serendipitous inventions that have been made. In each of the inventions described a chance event was important to the outcome. However, serendipitous inventions require not only a chance event, but also an inventor who recognizes the significance of the chance event and acts on it.