In the holiday season, what could you wish for scientists? To discover what they were looking for, of course. But why not wish for them to find that which they were not looking for? Although curiosity, thoroughness and knowledge are essential qualities for all researchers, clumsiness and chance can nevertheless be of interest. The history of the sciences is particularly rich with chance, or even accidental, discoveries. However, when taking a closer look at these chance discoveries, it becomes obvious that chance is not the whole story and where it had a part to play, researchers were able to make use of it to create the unexpected. This phenomenon even has a name: serendipity.
A small cut for man, a giant leap for mankind
Celluloid is considered the first artificial polymer in recorded history. It first appeared during the Civil War in the United States (1861/1864) at the time of an economic embargo imposed on the southern states by the northern states. Ivory, which was used to make billiard balls, and billiards was still very popular even as the war raged on, was one of the products under embargo. Seeing their industry threatened, the Phella & Collender Company, which manufactured billiard accessories, came up with the idea of launching a competition to find a substitute for the banned material. A young inventor by the name of John Westley Hyatt began his research using cellulose nitrate. However, disaster struck and he cut his finger. While cleaning his wound, he noticed that the collodion, used as an antiseptic at the time, which he had spilled on his preparation had made it harden.
Now sure of having struck upon the discovery of the century, he continued his research. It would take him another seven years to find the solution by adding camphor. This was the birth of celluloid and it would pave the way for what would come to be known as plastics.
And history would repeat itself two decades later. The French scientist Hilaire de Chardonnet was tasked with studying an illness affecting silkworms. Unable to come up with a cure, he wondered whether it would not be simpler to develop an artificial fibre to replace silk.
Taking a closer look at silkworms, he noticed that they secreted a liquid that hardens when exposed to air. He thought that he might be able to transform wood cellulose into a liquid with the same properties...but his efforts were in vain. He too accidentally spilled collodion on his solution. Instead of cursing his clumsiness, he observed the mixture gradually transforming into a paste that could be stretched out into individual fibres. He quickly filed a patent that would make him rich! First christened artificial silk, then rayon and finally viscose, this fibre is still widely used to manufacture clothes and the canvas inside tires.
A suspicious wife
It's hard to tell whether there is any truth to this story. Crippled by debt following the spectacular failure of his hardware store, Charles Goodyear was looking for a way to pay back his creditors and to support his family. He begins research on rubber, a material that was still unstable at extreme positive or negative temperatures. There was just one problem: he had promised his wife to look for a "real job" and promised not to do any more scientific experiments in their home. He decided to continue his research in secrecy. Being suspicious, she spied on him. As she entered his workshop unannounced, Charles only just had time to hide his research, based around latex and sulphur, in the coal stove. Once his wife had left the workshop, he threw his mixture into the snow in a fit of pique.
It is only when he went outside to pick it up again that he realised that it had taken on the consistency of a burnt rubber and that an elastic and waterproof belt had formed. Goodyear had just discovered vulcanisation.
The Columbus of polymers
Everyone knows the story of Christopher Columbus, the Genoese sailor who would discover America while searching for a route to India. In fact, it's one of the most beautiful examples for explaining serendipity! At the end of the 19th century, German chemist Hans von Pechmann was researching ethylene gas. His idea was to test the combined effects of pressure and temperature on the gas. Once his experiment had been carried out, he noticed a white residue at the bottom of the container. His curiosity aroused, he asked his colleagues to analyse the waxy paste. While examining the residue, they recognized a long chain of methylene. Logically, they christened the new material polyethylene (PE). Quite a discovery! The only problem was that no-one had any idea of what it might be used for. Thirty years later, chemists at the ICI company carried out the same type of test and...had the same results.
The only difference being that they saw in the residue a revolutionary material with very high electrical insulation capabilities. Once it was produced in large quantities, it was used to insulate the first airborne radars, providing the allied forces with a decisive advantage during the Second World War.
There are many examples of serendipity in the world of science, and they often delight lovers of anecdotes. However, anecdotes are often just a small part of the whole story. At the age of only 27, Roy Plunkett, a chemist working for a subsidiary of DuPont de Nemours would make a discovery which is still widely used over 80 years later. In 1938, Roy Plunkett was researching refrigerants. He began by cooling a gas, tetrafluoroethylene, in dry ice. He then put it all in a cylinder and waited a while to see what would happen. Upon opening the container, he discovered that the gas had disappeared. It was polymerised and had transformed into polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE), an extremely slippery resin that was highly resistant to chemicals and heat. This material was first used during the Second World War to create the seals on the American atomic bomb. Later on, in the 1950s, the polymer then known by its brand name Teflon® was commonly used in the electronics, chemicals and automotive industries. The market for Teflon® experienced rapid growth in the 1960 due to its now iconic use in the manufacture of non-stick cookware.
Nylon: an origin story that is still up for debate
There was no chance involved in the invention of Nylon. However, the origins of its name are still the subject of countless rumours, and with good reason, as its inventor, Wallace Carothers, committed suicide before christening his invention. Some believe that nylon comes from the letters NY (New York) and LON (London), or even from the names of the spouses of the team of inventors. In order to commercialise his discovery, DuPont de Nemours put forward the name norun ("does not run"). To avoid accusations of false advertising, the name was changed to Nuron and then Nylon. DuPont's official version was soon satirised, being called “Now You Lose Old Nippons,” so successfully in fact that DuPont purchased advertising space in a Japanese newspaper in 1941 for the sole purpose of denying the insulting name.
In fact, it is almost certain that the Nylon name was created from the acronym of the names of the wives of the five DuPont chemists who contributed to the textile's discovery: Nancy, Yvonne, Louella, Olivia and Nina.
A wallpaper cleaner makes a toymaker rich
Play-Doh has delighted children the world over since the 1960s. And with good reason: it is non-toxic, it is not greasy and it is enjoyable to touch. So, what is it made of? It is actually hard to say, as its composition is a closely-guarded trade secret. However, that is not important as the putty was developed in 1927 by a manufacturer of household cleaners used to clean the residue of coal stoves from wallpaper. In the 1950s, coal was replaced by fuel and the market collapsed! However, all was not lost as one the distributor's sales representatives noticed that their "soap" was being used as a putty in schools. He simply decided to reposition the product and to make it in different colours. And history was made. It is estimated that close to 700 million boxes of Play-Doh have been sold worldwide.
What to do with glue that does not stick?
In the early 1970s, Spencer Silver was a researcher in the laboratories of the 3M Company. While researching new formulas for glues, he came upon one which was characterised by its more than limited adhesiveness. No-one at 3M knew what to do with the glue that did not stick. Silver decided not to scrap his invention and to talk about it with colleagues and friends, just in case anyone had any ideas as to how it could be used. A few years later, one of his colleagues, Arthur Fry, was faced with a conundrum. The bookmark that he used in church to mark the Psalms kept falling out of his book. At once, he remembered the useless glue developed by his friend Spencer. He applied some of the glue to a piece of paper and used it as a bookmark that he could unstick and move around without ruining his hymn book. Fry quickly realised that his discovery could find many more uses than as a simple bookmark!
He was able to convince his employer, and 3M filed for the "Post-It" trademark in the late 1970s. It is currently one of the most used office supplies worldwide.
A revolutionary material discovered by mistake and…
The story goes that it all began in 1974, when a young Korean student at Japan's Tokyo Metropolitan University who was getting ready to prepare some polyacetylene (an organic polymer) was said to have mixed up his ratios. Not a master of the intricacies of the Japanese language, he is said to have misinterpreted the instructions for synthesis and to have made a mistake (of a factor of 1 to 1,000, it must be said!) in the dosage of one of the reactants. The result: instead of seeing the black powder which was the usual form of polyacetylene, he is said to have been faced with a silver film. The first polyacetylene film was born! Rather confused by his mistake, the young student could not know that his "discovery" would be published in many scientific journals and would earn him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry almost thirty years later.
… awarded a Nobel Prize
Luckily, the university laboratory was managed by Hideki Shirakawa, who decided to take a closer look at this new plastic film rather than throwing it away. He presented this "discovery" at various conferences, and it aroused the curiosity of the chemist Alan MacDiarmid and the physicist Alan Heeger, both of them teachers at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) who had been working on the electrical conductivity of non-metallic materials for quite some time. Assuming that the new material could have interesting properties in the field of electrical conduction (namely thanks to the particular chemical structure of polyacetylene), Alan MacDiarmid asked Hideki Shirakawa to join his team. The Nobel Prize was now a possibility. The three scientists received the Nobel Prize in the year 2000 for their discovery of conductive polymers.