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February 25, 2013

Though some form of wintry mix had been predicted, it was all sloppy cold rain and ice as we pulled into the parking lot on Saturday afternoon. When the big fluffy flakes descended on the Upstate, we were in the grocery store like hundreds of other snow-deprived Carolinians. Immediately the buzz spread down the bread aisle, “Have you looked outside? It’s a blizzard!”

The mood in the store was immediately transformed from adult-dreary to childlike excitement. Elderly men perked up. Matronly women pulled designer toboggans over their immaculate coiffures.  Children, who had worn their pajamas inside out and backwards the night before, were ready to get outside and play. It was a moment of serendipity.

The word serendipity was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole in a letter to a friend living in Italy.  The British statesman wrote that he created the word after reading a fairytale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip.”  Serendip is the Persian name for the island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka. Walpole explained that as the princes traveled they made surprising and unexpected discoveries that brought them great delight.

The shelves in the grocery store were stocked with several examples of serendipitous products.

On the soft drink aisle I saw the accidental invention of pharmacist John Pemberton, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. He intended to make a patent medicine – a brain and nerve tonic – to cure fatigue and headaches. Pemberton’s liquid concoction, brewed in a three-legged brass kettle in his backyard, included coca leaves, which left a small amount of cocaine in the elixir. Added to the mix was caffeine, also a stimulant. When combined with carbonated water the syrupy formula became Coca-Cola.

On the cereal aisle, I found Will Kellogg’s surprise. He was helping his brother cook meals for patients at a tuberculosis sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, when he mistakenly left bread dough sitting out for several hours. Upon discovering the flaky mess he decided to avoid waste by baking it anyway. The resulting flakes provided a tasty treat for the patients. The surprising spinoff was corn flakes.

In 1853 George Crum, a chef in New York, became frustrated with an irritable patron in his restaurant. The customer repeatedly returned French fries to the kitchen, complaining that they were too soggy. In an attempt to satisfy the disagreeable fellow, Crum sliced the potatoes extra thin, fried them to a crisp, and covered them in salt. The difficult customer was delighted with what became known as potato chips. Many brands and varieties of chips are available on the snack aisle.

The frozen foods display contained two serendipitous desserts. In 1905 eleven-year-old Frank Epperson wanted to save money by making his own soda pop. The mixture of flavored powder and sugar water was too sweet. He mistakenly left his concoction outside on the porch when temperatures dropped below freezing. The next morning young Frank found his frozen experiment with the stirring stick still in it.  Popsicles were born.

An ice cream vendor at the 1904 World’s Fair ran out of serving dishes. In the neighboring booth the sale of Persian waffles was slow. The two proprietors rolled up the waffles, plopped ice cream on top, and created the ice cream cone.

In the housewares section, you’ll find a product developed by a company that manufactures firearms.  While working on a rust-resistant gun barrel a metallurgist realized that stainless steel would be perfect for cooking utensils.

If you’ve ever cooked an omelet you can thank a chemist with the DuPont Corporation who accidentally stumbled upon Teflon while experimenting with refrigerants.

Looking for an alternative to shellac, a chemist came up with a material that could be heated to extremely high temperatures and molded into various shapes for multiple purposes. Plastic was inadvertently invented.

The research department at Kodak Laboratories made an accidental development. Super Glue, first rejected as being too sticky, was later successfully marketed.

Post-it Notes were an inadvertent discovery of the 3M Corporation.

During a hunting trip a Swiss engineer noticed how burrs clung to his dog’s fur. He replicated the effect in his laboratory. NASA (National Air and Space Administration) adopted the technology, and Velcro was popularized.

The industry has given us many other serendipitous products. Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite and Charles Goodyear’s process for the vulcanization of rubber are exceptional examples.

Even in the world of toys, the Slinky and Play-Doh were developed quite by accident.

The field of medicine has offered many surprises.

Before leaving for a vacation Alexander Fleming failed to disinfect some Petri dishes containing active bacteria. When he returned to his lab, mold had killed the bacteria cultures.  His forgetfulness aided in the discovery of penicillin.

X-rays, anesthesia, and the pacemaker were all unintended discoveries.

A medicine developed to treat hypertension proved an unsatisfactory remedy for high blood pressure. However, researchers found during the clinical trials that the formula was good for something else. The discovery of Viagra was serendipitous.

Garrison Keillor summarized the matter: “Serendipity is like looking for a needle in a haystack and finding instead the farmer’s daughter.”

In my garden, early on Sunday following the snowy Saturday, I had yet another moment of serendipity. Standing above a frozen blanket of white, bright yellow jonquils nodded in the cold morning breeze.

Life is full of joyful surprises. Serendipity is reason to celebrate.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2013

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