The happy accident that changed the world

The death this weekend of the American inventor Harry W. Coover caused a torrent of tributes to his greatest creation: Super Glue. Genius? Or just an accident?

Every now and again a small invention makes a big difference. The cooking pot, for instance, born in Japan 7000 years ago; or the pneumatic tyre, invented by a Scottish vet in 1888. Or Velcro, created by the Swiss dog-lover George de Mestral in 1948 to remove burrs from his dog's hair.

And then there was Super Glue.

Super Glue is in the news because its inventor died this weekend at the grand old age of 94.

Like many great inventions it was an accident. Harry W. Coover, an American, was actually trying to make precision gun sights for snipers in the Second World War. The material he created caused havoc in the factory because it just stuck everything together in one rock-hard lump.

Since then it has been used for fixing countless teacups and children's toys and accidentally for sticking even more countless pairs of fingers together. There is even an official web page from the Super Glue Corporation dedicated to how to get unglued if unfortunately stuck fast to a chair or to yourself or another person. (The answer is nail varnish remover, which contains acetone - Super Glue's only weakness).

Less well known is that Super Glue has been used to seal wounds quickly on the battlefield and for helping new coral to grow under the sea, due its ability to resist water. Detectives have even used it to get fingerprints.

Dr Coover was honoured last year by President Obama, who awarded him the US Medal of Technology and Innovation. He never made much money from his invention, however, because it didn't take off until after his patent had expired.

In fact it took him years to see its full potential. It happened when he was working on jet cockpits and found that, when two lenses were stuck together with the chemical, it was impossible to pull them apart. Dr Coover decided to sell it to the public and launched it with a public display in which a man dangled from an iron bar stuck to a crane with just one droplet of the miraculous adhesive. It was a massive hit.

Serendipity
Later in life he modestly claimed the secret of his success was serendipity – a word coined in a fairy tale written in 1754 by Horace Walpole about The Three Princes of Serendip who were always making happy discoveries by accident. Dr Coover's admirers point out that he had 460 patents to his name by the time he died and was obviously a brilliant mind.

On the other hand, Super Glue would probably never have been a global phenomenon without the 'happy accident' that helped Dr Coover see a wider use for the strangely powerful chemical compound that he originally created.

You Decide

  1. What is the greatest invention of all time?
  2. What do accidental discoveries tell us about the nature of science?

Activities

  1. What invention would you most like to see arrive in the world? Write a short article describing the invention and some of its uses.
  2. Choose a scientific discovery from history and write a report on it – how was it invented and what were the consequences?

Some People Say...

“Nothing really happens by chance.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What is Super Glue made of?
The scientific name for Super Glue is cyanoacrylate. This is an acrylic resin which sets when exposed to moisture in the air – which is why you always have to remember to put the lid back on.
And how strong is it really?
Well a patch of Super Glue about the size of a postage stamp can lift about a tonne of weight – so pretty strong.
But Coover didn't make any money because of the 'patent'?
That's right. A patent is a legal arrangement that ensures inventors get paid for the products they invent. But patents only last for a fixed term of years. After that, anyone can copy your invention without paying a penny.
That sounds unfair!
The law has to strike a balance between rewarding inventors on the one hand, and ensuring that everyone gets to benefit from their inventions, on the other.

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