Genius may strike in a moment of profound reflection, but the history books write of the divine spark that was lit by serendipity. It was out of frustration from his inability to rid his wine of bubbles that the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon took a sip to exclaim, “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!”
Like the Champagne of the good monk, countless inventions prior and following arose out of research for a different application. Many have gone on to become cultural treasures.
Many of humanity’s greatest inventions have come about through military research. This may come as no surprise in the case of inventions with clear wartime applications like nuclear fission or the internet. It is, however, a bit more surprising to realize that a number of children’s toys come from the same research environments.
Richard James was an engineer at a U.S. shipyard during WWII when he dropped a spring from his worktable. James fumbled for the coil as it fell to the floor when he noticed the way it “walked” of its own accord. Bemused and fascinated, James began experimenting with wires of different thickness, lengths, and tensions until he settled for 80 feet of coiled steel wire in a helical spring. In 1945, Gimbels department store allowed James to demonstrate his invention to shoppers. All 400 Slinkys were sold that day.
While Richard James toiled on the shipyard, many other researchers dedicated their time to key resources for the war effort. With applications in gas masks, life rafts, and airplanes, one of the most important of these resources was rubber. It was with this in mind that the Japanese targeted rubber plants across Asia in the early phases of the war and, in the same breath, that the U.S. government employed research for synthetic rubbers that could be produced without restricted ingredients.
In 1943, James Wright was conducting rubber research in New Haven, Connecticut, when he combined boric acid with silicone oil. Wright observed a number of odd characteristics of the substance. It stretched farther than rubber, it bounced when dropped, and it had a very high melting temperature. Upon sending samples to his superiors, Wright’s response from the U.S. government was that they wanted nothing to do with his “nutty putty.”
Seven years later, Wright brought the substance to a toy store with the help of advertiser Peter Hodgson. Sales initially stalled until a reporter from The New Yorker happened upon one of the colorful eggs and wrote a piece about Silly Putty. The article launched Silly Putty into the national spotlight, and sales skyrocketed.
In the early 1900s, the Swiss chemical company Sandoz was less concerned with tangerine trees and marmalade skies than they were with marketable products like saccharin and respiratory stimulants. However, in 1929, a scientist named Albert Hofmann would begin work on a substance that was destined to change the cultural landscape of the United States.
Hofmann was doing research on ergot, a toxic fungus that grew on grains and led to a condition described in the Middle Ages as St. Anthony’s fire—characterized by blisters and necrotic flesh. In addition to this horrific ailment, the fungus had also been deliberately used in controlled quantities to induce miscarriage in medieval Europe. Sandoz was interested in ergot as a vasoconstrictor and cardiorespiratory stimulant.
Hofmann developed a synthetic method to produce the active ingredient of ergot fungus, lysergic acid, and quickly went to work on producing various compounds with the substance. Hofmann never explained why he was so fascinated with the 25th sample of his experiments, but even after rejection from the Sandoz board, he went back to resynthesize the compound. The story goes that Hofmann accidentally touched LSD-25 before the entry in his journal explained the rest. On April 16, 1943, Hofmann wrote:
“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dream-like state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted steam of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
Albert Hofmann’s accidental ingestion of LSD became known as “bicycle day” after his choice of transport from the lab that day.