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September 29, 2019

Life is full of surprises. I will always remember a trip I took when I was seventeen years old. In 1962, I traveled to the African country of Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. I spent two months there visiting my Uncle Herbert and Aunt Jackie. I had many exciting adventures in what was then known as the Dark Continent. Africa was a beautiful land. The people were welcoming and friendly.

I had the opportunity to visit many areas of the country. Among those was a wildlife reserve where I saw up close, from the passenger seat of a Volkswagen bus, animals as diverse as elephants and rhinos, giraffe and zebra, lions and baboons. I visited Victoria Falls and traveled by boat up the Zambezi River.

In those days, Rhodesia was a British Commonwealth nation. Many English customs were embedded in the culture. Among those was the tradition of tea time. At four o’clock in the afternoon, in the remote jungle bordering the Zambezi, our boat docked at a picnic shelter with a thatched roof. There we were served high tea. I asked the middle-aged couple sitting across the table from me to please pass the sugar. They gave me the strangest look.

“Where are you from?” the man asked.

“South Carolina,” I replied.

“Where in South Carolina?” the woman askled.

“Spartanburg.” I said.

They laughed. “We’re from Anderson!”

On the other side of the world, I made new friends whose home was sixty miles from my home. 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 an 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.

I recently learned that the shelves of almost any grocery store are 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 spin-off 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.

I discovered that the frozen foods display contains 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 will 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. The National Air and Space Administration, NASA, adopted the technology, and Velcro was popularized.

NASA 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—the details of which I’ll leave to your imagination—was also serendipitous.

In my garden, early on a September Sunday morning, I found a Dutch iris in full bloom. They usually bloom in the early spring. I had yet another moment of serendipity.

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

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