As If By Chance: Part III

Sketches of Disruptive Continuity in the Age of Print from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs

One of the first photographs ever taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1838

Serendipity in the history of innovation

The above review of the work of Alois Senefelder and Ira W. Rubel shows that the stories of innovation by way of chance are both true and untrue. There is a paradox in the explanations of the origin of these key advancements that led to the transformation of the printing industry in the form of offset lithography. In both cases, an accidental event occurred while the inventors were pursuing technical progress through the methods of exploration and experimentation. In both cases, the inventors picked up on the potential contained in the inadvertent occurrence and pursued it further.

In order to get a clearer picture of why the accidental element of invention is given prominence in encyclopedia entries and popular reviews on the history of printing—and why they tend to dominate over evidence that the inventors’ advancements were far from pure luck—it is necessary to discuss this phenomenon more broadly, since it has been experienced in scientific and technological progress for thousands of years.

It is not difficult to find examples of “accidental inventions.” Lists have been published on news and science websites such as “Ten Accidental Discoveries That Changed the World” or “The Best Accidental Inventions” or “30 Life-Changing Inventions That Were Totally Accidental: Yes, The World As We Know It Is Predicated On Happenstance.” These summaries cover inventions—including the discoveries that led to consumer product brands such as SuperGlue®, Teflon and Vaseline®—where scientists and inventors were attempting to solve a problem and came upon their ultimate discoveries by accident. For the most part, these publishers treat the accidental breakthroughs as a novelty or trivia. They never get to the nub of the matter or get around to asking or answering the question as to why the phenomena is so common. However, there are others who have taken a more considered approach to the subject.

For example, in his 1989 book, Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, Royston M. Roberts addresses such occurrences at length by examining more then 70 instances of it. Included in his review are important chance findings such as the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley in 1778 and the discovery of evidence of the big bang by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1964.

Of interest in this review of print technology is Roberts’ examination of the first successful photographic process invented by L. J. M. Daguerre in 1838. Daguerre had been experimenting for about five years on a method for permanently capturing an image projected by a camera obscura—a device originally diagrammed by Leonardo DaVinci in 1519 that today might be called a pinhole camera—on plates coated with metallic compounds when he made his accidental discovery. Roberts describes the event as follows:

Daguerre prepared plates of highly polished silver-plated copper and exposed them to iodine vapor, which produced a thin layer of silver iodine on the surface. Using the camera obscura, he exposed these plates, producing a faint image. He tried many ways to intensify this image, but with little success. One day, he placed an exposed plate, which had only a faint image and which he intended to clean and use again, in a cupboard containing various chemicals. After several days, Daguerre removed the plate and found, to his amazement, a strong image on its surface!

In discussing the history of accidental discoveries, Roberts makes a distinction between those inventions that were sought but made accidentally (pseudoserendipity) and the discoveries made by chance without being sought (genuine serendipity). He explains that the term serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 after he read about the adventures of “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Serendip (or Serendib) is an ancient name for Ceylon, known today as Sri Lanka. Walpole wrote that the three princes, “were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things which they were not in quest of …” and he came up with the term to describe his own accidental discoveries.

Roberts also says that most of the individuals who have been “blessed by serendipity” are not reluctant to admit their good luck. He writes “They realize, I believe, that serendipity does not diminish the credit due them for their discovery.” Far from it, the retelling of the stories of accidental invention in some ways ensure that their breakthroughs are never forgotten. In fact, it is this need for a memorable and tellable story that provides an important impulse for the inventors themselves and others who knew them to place an emphasis on the accidental aspect of their innovations.

While not every invention bares the accidental imprimatur, the phenomenon has occurred more frequently in the history of science and invention than many readers may be aware. As Roberts points out in his review, there are dozens of examples of accidental events and outcomes—often observed initially as inconsequential or meaningless—that merged with the persistence of the scientist or inventor and were transformed into intended or unintended discoveries.

One of the most well-known of these stories covered by Roberts is that of the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who lived in the third century BC. Archimedes discovered how to measure the volume of an irregularly shaped object by submerging it in water and measuring the volume of liquid displaced by it. The story goes that Archimedes—who had been asked by King Hiero to determine if his crown was made of pure gold—came to his discovery when he saw water run over the top of the tub as he stepped into a public bath in Syracuse. He became so overwhelmed by the excitement of his chance discovery that he ran into the streets completely naked and declared, “Eureka! Eureka!” (“I found it! I found it!”)

While there is no written record of the legend of Archimedes’ Principle—other than its first appearance in an introduction by Vitruvius in his ninth book of architecture some 200 years after the event was to have happened—the story has staying power and is, at the very least, entertaining and memorable. These features have ensured—despite some critics who assert that Archimedes would never have uttered the word Eureka at that time—that the story has been repeated countless times over the past 2,100 years.

While Roberts does a fine job of explaining the circumstances that led up to the “Eureka moments” in so many examples of accidental innovation, he does not examine the prevalence of these experiences as a necessary phenomena or a natural but disruptive moment in the continuum from old to new ideas and technology. For Roberts, the accidental is purely accidental and nothing more. Meanwhile, he does not attempt to give a reason for the overemphasis on the accidental element—and, in many cases, the mythologizing that arises therefrom—in accounts of significant scientific and technical discoveries by way of happenstance.