Creativity is not an accident

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

Creativity is not an accident, Scott Berkun argues — while listing a number of serendipitous accidents:

Microwave oven: In 1945 Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, discovered a candy bar that melted in his pocket near radar equipment. He chose to do a series of experiments to isolate why this happened and discovered microwaves. It would take ~20 years before the technology developed sufficiently to reach consumers.

Safety Glass: In 1903 scientist Edouard Benedictus, while in his lab, did drop a flask by accident, and to his surprise it did not break. He discovered the flask held residual cellulose nitrate, creating a protective coating. It would be more than a decade before it was used commercially in gas masks.

Artificial Sweeteners: Constantine Fahlberg, a German scientist, discovered Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, in 1879. After working in his lab he didn’t wash his hands, and at dinner discovered an exceptionally sweet taste. He returned to his lab, tasting his various experiments, until rediscovering the right one (literally risking his life in an attempt to understand his accident).

Smoke Detector: Walter Jaeger was trying to build a sensor to detect poison gas. It didn’t work, and as the story goes, he lit a cigarette and the sensor went off. It could detect smoke particles, but not gas. It took the work of other inventors to build on his discovery to make commercial smoke detectors.

X-Rays: Wilhelm Roentgen was already working on the effects of cathode rays during 1895, before he actually discovered X-rays. was a scientist working on cathode rays. On November 8, 1895, during an experiment, he noticed crystals glowing unexpectedly. On investigation he isolated a new type of light ray.


The Myths of Innovation (the actual myths) will always be popular, which means for any inspiring story of a breakthrough, we must ask:

  1. How much work did the creator do before the accident/breakthrough happened?
  2. How much work did they do after the accident/breakthrough to understand it?
  3. What did they sacrifice (time/money/reputation) to convince others of the value of the discovery?

It’s answering these 3 questions about any creativity story in the news, however accidental or deliberate, that reveals habits to emulate if we want to follow in their footsteps.


  1. Ezra says:

    Lucite also. Penicillin also. Etc.

  2. Kirk says:

    It mostly comes down to observational skills… You have to know what to expect, before observation tells you that the anomaly is there to see and then do the “Huh… That’s funny…” thing.

    It’s not that creativity or anything is the key thing, it’s the observation and the recognition that there’s something there to investigate thoroughly. There’s no telling how many times some world-shaking discovery has been made accidentally, and just as accidentally ignored because it didn’t fit the pre-conceived notions of the experimenter.

    I talked to a physics instructor one time about this, and the thing that we both came to agree on was that there were probably a lot of occasions where someone ran a routine experiment, didn’t get the results they expected, ignored those results, and re-ran the experiment until they got it right. Meanwhile, there were unobserved implications of the anomalous iteration that would have been far more interesting–Had the experimenter had the wit to recognize them for what they were.

  3. Graham says:

    Creativity, like intelligence, is a term fraught with contradictions that can perhaps be given a consensus meaning at any moment, but none will ever cover all the bases.

    With that out of the way, I have noticed that in recent decades, with some surging and ebbing, our culture keeps coming back to some notions about creativity that I don’t necessarily buy.

    1. Everybody is or can be creative. I guess. Many people can be creative in small ways, or in narrow fields of expertise, or in everyday relationships, or some such. But given some more elevated or tighter definition of creativity, I’m not sure how many people in any generation are really all that creative. Going back to grade school, I dimly remember the idea must have been part of what my teachers were trained to believe, based on what they said and did and asked us to do. I get it- they needed to find out what kids could do and encourage them. The same with every field of learning/training, from academic intelligence to public speaking to PE to social intelligence/EQ. But still, we weren’t all going to start rock bands or write poetry. Not well. I was not very creative. I still am not. Save perhaps in some very narrow senses.

    So I have wondered whether we are setting up to fail by expecting too much.

    2. This may have implications for the expected economic phase we have entered, in which the advanced countries leave even the service economy behind and become the world’s idea generators. Right. As long as the universal income is in place for the rest of us. And soma.

    Futurist advocates like Richard Florida have made great hay out of the model of cities whose culture is defined by elites of diverse creatives, with a service economy and political culture built around them. On one level, this could be a description of every complex urban society ever. But I have doubts as to the viability of this specific variation.

    3. In the realm of SF, I continue to cringe whenever any writer creates a utopian civilization in which the whole population is devoted to some unified creative principle like art. ST TNG did this once. Even as a teen, I wondered what genetic engineering program had been applied in their deep history, to produce an entire planet-spanning race of artists, generation upon generation.

    In this specific framework, Kirk may have nailed the most workable definition of creativity-

    The knowledge/ability to do a thing, the willingness to do it over and over again, the attentiveness to know when it has worked differently, and the wit to actually ask why. And then more attentiveness to pursue that line with the same doggedness as one had pursued the routine.

    It’s a remarkable combination of muleheadedness and flexibility. Our rhetoric sometimes forgets the former.

  4. Kirk says:

    The whole issue is wrapped up in the ideas we have about the human mind, which we’ve done a really horrid job of working out.

    You would think, at this point in our civilization, that we’d have a reasonably good idea about what works, when it comes to studying and learning something for the individual human. But… We don’t.

    There should be a well-worked out process to develop a pedagogy that works, when it comes to teaching something–I mean, how much different is it to teach a kid to read today, vice two hundred years ago when it was slates and McGuffey Readers? So, why the hell do we keep trying to change that crap up, and “improve it”? Why are we graduating functional illiterates from our school systems all over North America, one of the most successful and wealthiest regions on this planet?

    It’s puzzling and frustrating to watch people I know around me try to pick up something new, in terms of skills and what-not. When I do it, I find the equipment, read the literature, familiarize myself with it, and then start with simple tasks, working up to the more complex ones.

    Other people? Oh, holy crap… It’s like they’ve no idea at all how to learn, or to teach themselves things. And, it’s baffling to me that they’ve got these problems, because they’re ones I worked through in grade school and found personal solutions to. Why didn’t they…?

  5. Paul from Canada says:

    “It mostly comes down to observational skills… You have to know what to expect, before observation tells you that the anomaly is there to see and then do the “Huh… That’s funny…” thing.”

    I have a friend who is a biologist. She studies the genes that allow female mosquitoes to switch from digesting plant nectar, to digesting blood.

    I recall a conversation where she said that science advanced, not from “Eureka!”, but from “Hmmm, that’s weird, it shouldn’t have done that…”.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    I’ve often thought that what we call creation of ideas is simply the discovery of possibilities. This idea is itself a variation of Platonic idealism.

    I’m looking to become able to generate a lot of medium-quality content cheaply (in terms of effort.) For this I’m currently exploring computer scripts that will generate “ideas” from the low-hanging fruit of idea-space.

    I don’t see the idea-space as egalitarian. I see a hierarchy: I can (I think) write a script to generate nothing-special ideas, but to write the script in the first place is something a human – namely myself- must do.

    You could argue this means there is fake creativity and real creativity, but I see no reason to think there are only these two levels. Perhaps there are many levels above, and somewhere up there is God.

  7. Sam J. says:

    Mosquitoes digest plant nectar????

    I had no idea.

  8. Paul from Canada says:

    Yeah, everyone thinks of mosquitoes as bloodsucking pests, but males never bite, and females only bite when they are reproducing. They need the extra nutrition from blood when they are getting ready to lay their eggs. The rest of the time they are nectar feeders.

    My friend’s research is trying to find a way to understand the biology behind the mechanism that permits this digestive change, with a view to using this knowledge to develop a possible mosquito control method.

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