In 2012, Marvin Rosales Martinez, a landscaper in New York, noticed a soggy lottery ticket peeking out from beneath a pile of leaves. One year later, he collected the $1 million prize. Imagine the confluence of events that must occur to make such a seemingly random event possible. A ticket must be purchased, the ticket must contain winning numbers, the ticket must be lost in a particular area of a particular park to which Mr. Martinez must be assigned on a particular day.
The odds are astronomical, to say the least. Fate, however, cares little for odds. Fate forges forward, carefully distributing a combination of fortune and misfortune, as we humans look on in utter confusion, bewildered by the arbitrariness of it all.
Throughout history, those who have positioned themselves in the path of fate have found that their successes are often attributed to pure chance. A toss of the dice that came up in their favor. It is only through careful examination that we realize that these chances — these happy accidents — arose out of shrewdly designed circumstances.
Take, for example, the classic story of the Post-it Note. Inadvertently created by Dr. Spencer Silver while trying to develop a super-strong adhesive, for years the little yellow notes were considered a “solution without a problem.” And yet, here was a man who devoted his working life to adhesives and he saw the potential of a super-weak adhesive. Spencer became an advocate. Though chance handed him the Post-it Note, it was his continued advocacy that made it a financial success.
Perhaps more than others, innovators find themselves touched by fate. Here, we take a look at those rare few who positioned themselves, stared down the long road ahead of them and waited for fate’s passing. From coal dust’s million dollar secret to a discovery that paved the way for the perfect omelet, we’ve compiled a list of four — only partially — accidental millionaires.
William Henry Perkin
William Henry Perkin was born in the East End of London in 1838. During a time when Dickens’ Oliver Twist was destitute and toiling away in an anonymous workhouse, Perkin found himself blessed with an array of opportunities, including enrollment at the Royal College of Chemistry by the tender age of 15.
Before Dickens raised his pen to write about the worst of times, a twist of fate would thrust Perkin into the best of times.
In 1856, Perkin’s mentor took a holiday. With a weekend’s worth of time on his hands, Perkin set about attempting to synthesize quinine, a valuable agent used to treat malaria. Holed up in his quaint — read: small, disorganized — apartment laboratory, Perkin accidentally created a substance that when extracted with alcohol exhibited a vibrant purple hue.
Perkin amped up production and sought to commercialize the substance, which he called “mauveine.” As luck would have it, the principle component of mauveine, coal tar, was a common by-product of the coal refining process, and with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, Perkin’s venture paid off.
By the age of 20, Perkin was the richest chemist in England. In fact, so prevalent did “Perkin’s purple” become that the shade was immortalized by Charles Dickens himself, who wrote, “[a]s I look out of my window, the apotheosis of Perkins’s purple seems at hand.”
Another dauntless chemist, Roy Plunkett is the man who brought perfectly cooked eggs to the masses. Plunkett, employed as a research chemist by DuPont, tipped a cylinder he’d been using the previous day and what came out might as well have been solid gold.
But, in reality, what came out was a whitish, waxy powder. Most people working in a highly-secured facility who find themselves faced with an unidentified white powder would summarily lose their cool and run screaming towards the nearest safety station. Plunkett sliced the cylinder in half and pried the remaining powder out with a loose wire.
What Plunkett found that day was polytetrafluoroethylene — also known as Teflon — a thermoplastic polymer that maintains high strength, heat resistance, resistance to corrosion, toughness and low surface friction at extremely high temperatures. Plunkett’s accidental substance today enjoys hundreds of industrial, aerospace and computer applications. More importantly, Teflon’s non-stick properties are the reason the average person can flip omelets without plunging spatulas into the wall in a show of rage-induced frustration.
In the end, Plunkett’s unintended discovery earned him the John Scott Medal and inductions into both the Plastics Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Dr. Harry Coover
There’s a certain symmetry to Dr. Harry Coover’s discovery. While he aimed to make aiming easier, instead he fixed up a way to fix soldiers.
In 1942, while he was looking for a material suitable for clear plastic gun sights, Coover looked into cyanoacrylates. Initially rejected due to its tendency to stick to, well, everything, Coover shelved the substance for almost 10 years. During his second investigation of the substance, Coover was searching for heat-resistant polymers for jet canopies. Again, cyanoacrylate proved too sticky, however, this time Coover took note of the adhesive properties.
When 1958 rolled around, Coover’s employer, Kodak, began marketing cyanoacrylate under its more common name: Super Glue. Suddenly, a new age of unintentionally gluing extremities to walls, toilet seats and model parts was ushered in. Perhaps because of this, Coover recognized the material’s potential as a tissue adhesive, and Super Glue was soon adopted as a way to quickly patch soldiers’ injuries during the Vietnam War.
By the time he passed away in 2011, Coover held over 460 patents and was responsible for management methods that yielded $700 million in growth at Kodak. He was awarded the Southern Chemist Man of the Year Award, the Earl B. Barnes Award for Leadership in Chemical Research Management, and was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, among a number of other distinguished honors.
Percy Spencer didn’t have an easy life so it was perhaps fate that he would stumble upon a way to make the average person’s life easier. When he was 18 months old, Spencer’s father died and he was left in the care of his aunt and uncle. At the age of 7, his uncle died and he was forced to leave school. As the man of the house, by the tender age of 12, he was working twelve-hour days at a local spool mill.
For the next twenty years, Spencer — poor and uneducated — eagerly immersed himself in the world of electrical engineering, becoming a self-made expert by 1939. While working for Raytheon, Spencer noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted after he’d spent time standing in front of an active radar set. That accidental observation led him to investigate the possibility of using microwaves to cook food and, from his experiments the microwave oven was born.
While the technology struggled at first, burdened by it’s $3,000 price tag and the fact that it weighed almost half a ton, dedicated refinement led to the introduction of the first affordable, reasonably sized microwave in 1967. Eventually becoming a Senior Member of the Board of Directors at Raytheon, Spencer was awarded over 300 patents and was — at long last — granted an honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Massachusetts.