Ratazzi (2004) describe breakthrough inventions change the world and provide a huge economic benefit. However, this path to innovation sources can be circuitous by nature or deliberately obscured (Von Hippel, 1976). It is not a new thing that a path to innovation is usually filled with failure, but there are times that success came from opportunistic recognition and use of unexpected or unplanned for the event which is what is known as accidental innovation (Frey, 1992). Ham (2011) state accidental innovation is that despite the element of surprise, the innovators knew they had stumbled upon something valuable.
However, the chance arises due to uncertainty; it is often unclear what constitutes an innovator. To support this very same idea (Frey, 1992) quoted the famous scientist Louis Pasteur’s remark from the mid-1800s, “chance favors the prepared mind.” Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithsonian, said: ” The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well-prepared to receive them.” Winston Churchill, who was a Prime Mister at the time of World War II, commented: “Men occasionally stumble across the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened” (Bosenman, 1988). In this blog post, we will discuss three types of accidental innovations through serendipity, error, exaptation.
Serendipity is coming across to something while not working to innovate it. I gave the invention of X-ray as an example since Rontgen was only experimenting to familiarize himself with previously discovered rays when he stumbled upon X-ray that revolutionizes the modern medicine. Bosenman (1988) described the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovered X-rays by accident in 1895. While Rontgen was repeating similar experiments that others have done in the past, he stumbled upon new rays that he later called it X rays. Rontgen repeated some of these experiments to familiarize himself with the techniques. He then decided to see whether he could detect cathode rays issuing from an evacuated all-glass tube, one with no thin aluminum window. No one had observed cathode rays under these conditions. Rontgen thought the reason for the failure might be that the strong phosphorescence of the cathode tube obscured the weak fluorescence of the detecting screen.
In present-day medicine, X-rays are a useful tool to diagnose cancers such as lung and breast and have a wide verity of use in different medical and dental diagnosis. When the Swedish Academy of Sciences distributed the Nobel Prizes for the first time in 1901, the choice for the prize in physics was Rontgen for his accidental discovery of X-rays. It certainly must have been a great satisfaction to the Academy to have such an eminent achievement to honor with the first award (Bosenman, 1988).
Error can be an invention is when one was working to achieve something but by mistake find another outcome that by itself is a new invention. Holmes (2015) provided one of these successful errors a scientist at the chemicals giant 3M who was trying to create a super strong glue but ended up with a super weak one. Which they later decide to use that for a different inspiration spawned Post-it notes.
Exaptation is more focused not on reinventing the wheel but improving it to work faster, stronger, or better. I will give the invention of led light bulbs as an example even though Thomas Edison is in the books for inventing light bulb since 1878; Bowers made a huge innovation using led based light bulbs. Carey (2005) explains Michael Bowers, who was a graduate student, accidentally discovered the white LED lights that pretty much replaces the old incandescent lights in today’s world. Bowers was experimenting to make quantum dots size very small, which are crystals only a few nanometers big that is less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Quantum dots are easily excited bundles of energy, and the smaller they are, the more excited they get. Before Bowers’ accidental innovative discovery of LEDs could only produce green, red, and yellow light, which limited their use. LEDs produce twice as much light as a regular 60-watt bulb and burn for over 50,000 hours. The US Department of Energy estimates LED lighting could reduce U.S. energy consumption for lighting by 29 percent by 2025 and this makes Bowers accidental innovation very successful discovery to save the households cut on their electric bill and make our world green.
Some authors claim innovation could only transpire with a conscientious investigation rather than by accident. We have quoted some prosperous scientists and famous people that think otherwise who stated it is possible to invent incipient finding by accident we just need to be yare to discover it when we come across it. We have given three forms of fortuitous inventions from serendipity, error, and exaptation that shows it is possible to have an accidental breakthrough and incremental inventions that will give a sizably voluminous advantage to the world.
Bosenman, M. F. (1988). Serendipity and scientific discovery. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 22(2), 132-138.
Carey, B. (2005, October 21). Accidental Invention Points to End of Light Bulbs. Retrieved January 27, 2018, from https://www.livescience.com/428-accidental-invention-points-light-bulbs.html
Frey, D. N. (1992). The duality principle. Chief Executive, (73), 64.
Ham, W. (2011) Giving Randomness a Chance: Strategy vs. No Strategy in Knowledge Acquisition.
Holmes, B. (2015). Get lucky. New Scientist, 227(3035), 38-41.
Ratazzi, E. P. (2004). MiniDisc: Successful Innovation or Just Cool Technology?. An Analysis of Sony’s Decade-Long Quest for Success. Rome, NY.
Von Hippel, E. (1976). The dominant role of users in the scientific instrument innovation process* 1. Research Policy, 5(3), 212–239.