Accidents of birth

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
From Teflon to Post-it notes, discoveries can sometimes depend on good, old-fashioned luck, writes James Williams.

Roy Plunkett and Art Fry, Industrial Chemists.

Serendipity is a lovely word. Simply put, it means a lucky break or accident. Science for many is a methodical, theoretical pursuit, often planned with a credible hypothesis, but there have been many serendipitous discoveries that have landed in our everyday lives, from Teflon and nylon to Velcro and Post-it notes.

The big theories of science are fascinating and capture the imagination, but how many of us take small science for granted and never give a second thought as to how that everyday object or material came to be discovered?

Some of the stories of major accidental discoveries, such as Roy Plunkett's discovery of Teflon are well documented. Teflon has had a major impact on society. It is a chemical that allows humans to explore space, and patients whose heart valves have been replaced with Teflon valves do not have to worry about rejection.

It can make artificial bones, noses, dentures and corneas, and all from an accidental discovery on April 6, 1938. While trying to find a non-toxic refrigerant, New Jersey scientist Roy Plunkett discovered that instead of a tank full of the gas tetrafluoroethylene, he had inadvertently made a polymer, a long chain molecule, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).

This white, waxy plastic proved to be inert and resistant to strong acids and heat. The Second World War came along and much top secret work was undertaken to make the ultimate weapon, the one that would end the war and hopefully bring about a lasting peace.

Developing this weapon, the atom bomb, posed many problems for scientists. One of these problems involved finding a material for valves and gaskets that was resistant to the corrosive gas uranium nexafluoride. Teflon was just the material to do this and, with virtually unlimited research funding, supplied by the American government, the Du Pont company was able to develop the gaskets and valves.

Teflon was unknown to the public until after the war, but soon became an indispensable addition to the modern kitchen and from here many more uses became apparent to workers in Teflon.

A less dramatic, but nevertheless global serendipitous discovery resulted in the development of Post-it notes, a feature of everyday life in the office and home that is now taken for granted.

We all think of glue as a permanent way to stick something. One of the biggest producers of adhesives, 3M, spent many millions researching the best adhesives for an ever-hungry market.

One of its research chemists, Dr Spencer Silver, developed what he thought was a useless adhesive. It was sticky, but could not bond anything in a permanent way. Like so many other test batches of adhesive, it was noted and forgotten about by its developer.

Working at that time in product development was Art Fry from Minnesota. Every Sunday at church he had the habit of marking pages in his hymn book and prayer book with scraps of paper. These would often fall out. During one Sunday service, he remembered the non-permanent adhesive developed by his colleague.

His thoughts began to formulate a new product, a temporary book marker that would not fall out as soon as the book was moved or opened and which did not have to be a permanent fixture to the page. The next day he retrieved the notes on the apparently useless glue and began to develop the new product, what we now call Post-it notes, often copied and hugely successful.

The first Post-it notes were test marketed in four American cities in 1977 to a mixed response. Like most new developments, it took free samples to the public to raise its profile to a level where demand was created. But, once their versatility was realised, sales took off.

Reaching Europe in the early Eighties, the little yellow notes soon proved as popular on this side of the Atlantic as they did in America. Scourge of the office or saviour is a debatable point, but there is no doubt that they are here to stay.

From big bombs to big business, accidental discoveries in science often change the way we work and live, some with more devastating effects than others. Some accidents can be life-saving, others convenient, but all are characterised by a flash of insight and inspiration, a leap of imagination that can see a use for the apparently useless.

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