Super Glue demonstrates the art of the unexpected
It helped specially strengthen a bridge near Rotherham. It was used in the Vietnam War to patch together the internal organs of injured soldiers. And it even helped repair the engine of the space shuttle Discovery.
Superglue has been put to some surprising uses over the years and along the way become a household name. Now Harry Wesley Coover Jr, the man who invented it, has died.
Although Coover was an accomplished inventor, with more than 400 patents to his name as well as the American National Medal of Technology and Invention, I was fascinated to discover that he chanced upon the formula for Superglue by accident.
He was among those who developed the adhesive in a search for materials to make clear plastic gun sights during the Second World War. But it was rejected by researchers because it stuck to everything – only to be re-developed and finally marketed as Superglue in 1958.
And I’ve been even more fascinated to discover just how many inventions have come about by chance or accident.Post-it notes and ink-jet printers in the office…kitchen accessories like Cellophane, Teflon and the microwave oven…and advances in healthcare like penicillin, the X-ray and the vaccine for smallpox.
There’s an urban myth about beauty product Creme de la Mer being accidentally invented by scientists at NASA. And it’s definitely true that Viagra’s unique properties for curing erectile dysfunction were discovered by scientists originally trialling the drug as a cure for hypertension.
In the face of such strong evidence, it’s clear that serendipity is a crucial part of the research and creative processes of any inventor – as is an ability to have a mind that’s open to the potential of mistakes and accidents – and, more generally, a lifestyle that isn’t ruled by schedule and regimental planning, but one which allows a certain amount of going with the flow and a full engagement in the spontaneity of life.
For me at least, this has been an important lesson to learn as I’ve often scoffed at the modern-day industry of brainstorming and creative workshopping which has sprung up precisely to encourage this kind of “accidental” innovation and discovery.
Of course it’s often difficult to measure the results of an approach to solving problems which foregrounds the importance of lateral thinking and activities organised to promote distraction can sometimes seem daft, pointless and even laughable. But clearly they have a place in industry and society in general – and a big one.
So the next time I need to solve a problem, rather than thinking about it rationally and tackling it head-on, I might just go off-piste and distract myself by doing something completely different. Who knows? I might even come up with an innovation as good as Superglue.
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