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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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11.5.5 Chance

Another important source of inventions and scientific discoveries is chance, which is strongly associated with acts of insight. As well as the sort of painstaking work that either precedes an invention or goes into the steady improvement in performance, in the development of most inventions there's a moment when chance plays a part. Often people are looking for one thing but find another – perhaps working on one technology when they stumble on the principles behind another. The skill of the inventor lies initially in recognising the significance of a chance discovery and later of persuading others of its significance.

Chance played a part when the Swiss engineer George de Mestral conceived the idea for Velcro in 1948. After returning from a walk he found seed pods sticking to his socks and to his dog. When he examined the pods under a microscope he saw how tiny hooks had caught in the loops of the wool (Figure 46). He developed a method of reproducing the hooks and loops in woven nylon for use in clothing instead of buttons and zips (Figure 47). He called the product Velcro from a combination of velours (velvet) and crochet (hook), and the product went on to have many other uses including medicine (for joining the chambers of an artificial heart) and the space programme (for securing objects in a weightless environment).

Figure 46
Figure 46 Seed heads of this Goosegrass fruit are covered with prickly hooked bracts (modified leaves). They stick to the fur of passing animals and are carried away to colonise new territories (Source: Science Photo Library)
Figure 47
Figure 47 This electron-microscope picture of Velcro shows how closely the fastener copies the Goosegrass fruit (Source: Science Photo Library)

The tiny nylon hooks on one piece of Velcro catch the loops on the facing piece like seed burrs catch onto fur or wool. A thumbnail-size piece of Velcro contains about 750 hooks, with 12 500 loops on the other side. They can be fastened and unfastened thousands of times without wearing out.

Box 6 Chance and the invention of the microwave cooker

In 1945 Percy Spencer was an engineer working for Raytheon, a company that produced magnetrons, a key component of radar. One day he discovered that a chocolate and peanut bar in his pocket had melted. He realised that it must have been the high-frequency radio emissions from a magnetron that had heated the bar. Spencer then experimented by placing a bag of popcorn close to the magnetron – the popcorn exploded. Subsequent experiments showed that microwaves agitated the water molecules in food and cooked from the inside out, the opposite of conventional cooking.

The 1945 patent shows the original plan to have the food on a conveyor belt passing the cooker, with the speed of the belt controlling the cooking time (Figure 48). This idea didn't last long. Although it was a small company specialising in military electronics, Raytheon made the first commercial microwave cookers (Radarange) in 1947 (Figure 49). They were six feet high and cost the modern equivalent of around £40 000, so unsurprisingly sales were slow at first and were mainly to institutional catering units. It wasn't until the late 1960s, following a takeover, that a domestic worktop model was produced and sales began to pick up.

Figure 48
Figure 48 Microwave cooker drawing from the 1945 patent (Source: van Dulken, 2002)
Figure 49
Figure 49 An early microwave cooker next to five modern cookers (Source: Raytheon Company)

While chance observation can play a key part in achieving major progress, chance alone is not enough. Invention still requires the presence of an imaginative mind sensitised to the features of particular technological problems and busy thinking about solutions in order to capitalise on the chance occurrences. As Louis Pasteur put it, ‘Where observation is concerned, chance favours only the prepared mind’.

Most aspects of invention (including steps 1 and 2 above and 5 below) can be, and usually are, influenced by economic incentives. Acts of insight, however, are bound up with the inventor's character, motivations, thinking style and thought processes – in other words, their individual creativity. No matter what the economic incentive for coming up with an invention, an individual will not be able to achieve the necessary act of insight without possessing the appropriate inventive skills, or acquiring them through training or practice. How often have you come across an inventive new product and thought, that seems obvious, why didn't I think of that? But it takes a special skill to be the first person to make an unlikely connection and to come up with a creative solution to a problem.

Acts of insight might come more readily to people already working with a technology, but because such acts go beyond the skill expected of professionals it is sometimes possible for relative outsiders to come up with important inventions. For example Laszlo Biro was a journalist when he invented the ballpoint pen, John Boyd Dunlop was a veterinary surgeon when he invented the pneumatic tyre, and so on. So it is sometimes possible for users of technology to come up with improvements or replacements to existing technology when those already in the field see no need for change. However, such acts of insight seldom lead to a fully formed invention.