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Fortunately, Accidents Do Happen (May 2009 Commencement Address #1, Friday)

  • Date: 05/08/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, The University of Akron
  • Last December, Time magazine published a small obituary on the life of Betty James who passed away at age 90.  While noted in her own right as an astute and successful businesswoman, Betty was best known, early on, as the wife and business partner of Richard James.  He invented the popular toy, the Slinky, which next year celebrates its 65th birthday.

    Actually, Richard James discovered the Slinky by accident.  While working at his job as a mechanical engineer for the U.S. Navy in Philadelphia, he observed a torsion spring falling off a table.  The spring proceeded to "walk" down some books and then tumbled end over end across the floor.

    The following year, Richard quit his job and he and Betty opened a factory to mass produce this new toy, which they introduced to the public through Gimbels Department Store. 

    It was Betty James who gave the Slinky its name.  She wrapped the first Slinkys for sale on their kitchen table, and she created the catchy jingle that your parents and grandparents might remember. 

    "What walks downstairs alone or in pairs"

    "And makes a slinkity sound?"

    "A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing"

    "Everyone knows it's Slinky"1

    Since its first public appearance in 1945, hundreds of millions of Slinkys have been sold.  In fact, stretched end to end, those Slinkys would reach 250-million miles, or about 126 times around the earth.2

    Listed among the most popular toys ever, the Slinky was one of the first toys to travel into outer space, and in 1999 was even commemorated by the U.S. Postal Service on a postage stamp.

    Why has the Slinky remained so popular? 

    "People (tend) to like brainless things that move funny," said Dan Bova, deputy editor for Stuff magazine.  "It doesn't need batteries, which parents like.  It doesn't make noise, which parents like.  It's just the simplicity of the thing."3

    Not only has the invention launched millions of Slinkys down staircases all over the world, its usefulness has evolved over the years.

    The Slinky commonly is used to explain scientific concepts, including the study of wave motion.  Slinkys can be especially useful in teaching acoustics and seismology, and teachers instructing autistic children often use the toy to encourage focus and attention.

    Also, a series of linked Slinkys can be used as a shortwave radio antenna, a technique employed by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. 

    Thanks to the alertness of innovators like Richard James, it is fortunate that accidents do happen, because accidents in many cases, with alert observers, do bare fruit.  In fact, Mark Twain once proclaimed that "'Accident' is the name of the greatest of all inventors."4

    Invention seldom goes by the book.  Accidental discoveries are everywhere, and our lives are much better because of them.

    A lucky accident near and dear to Akron was Charles Goodyear's discovery of the vulcanization process that led to the production of durable tires, among many other uses.  In 1839, while experimenting with the properties of gum elastic, Goodyear accidentally dropped India rubber mixed with sulfur on a hot stove.  Before this discovery, rubber was for all practical purposes, useless.  When hot, it was sticky.  When cold, it was hard and brittle. However, vulcanized, its uses were endless.5

    Another fortunate accident was the microwave oven.  Dr. Percy LeBaron Spencer, an engineer at the Raytheon Company, was testing a magnetron which was used during World War II to pinpoint the exact location of enemy war machines.  When he reached into his pocket for his chocolate bar, he quickly discovered that it had melted.  He then tested his theory on kernels of corn, which quickly turned into popcorn.  By the way, the original microwave oven weighed 750 pounds and stood at more than five feet tall.6

    Plexiglas was discovered accidentally in Germany 75 years ago.  Walter Bauer and Otto Rohm were trying to make an improved safety glass by polymerizing methyl methacrylate between glass sheets. The glass didn't stick to the polymer that formed, and what was supposed to be the adhesive proved to be a transparent shatterproof plastic in its own right.7

    Fireworks originated in China more than 2,000 years ago.  According to legend, a cook accidentally mixed charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter, which were common elements found in a kitchen.  When burned and compressed, the mixture exploded.  What we don't know is whether that was the cook's last day on the job.8 

    Another example was the discovery of Velcro by Swiss engineer George de Mestral who, after returning from a walk, found cockleburs stuck to his clothing.  They were not easy to remove, and after examining them under a microscope, he developed the hook and loop fastener that is as strong if not stronger than glue.9

    In 1974, Arthur Fry was looking for a way to hold bookmarks in his church hymnal.  He remembered the misfortune of fellow 3M employee Spencer Silver, who in trying to make a stronger glue, ended up with something much weaker than anything they had ever made and was considered a failure - a failure, that is, until Fry convinced the company that this weak adhesive power was perfect for Post-It Notes.10

    Play-Doh was accidentally discovered by Joseph and Noah McVicker who were trying to make wallpaper cleaner.11

    Viagra initially was designed to be a heart medicine.  The drug was found to be ineffective on the heart, but Pfizer, the drug company, knew that it must have some value when men undergoing testing of the drug refused to return unused amounts.12

    Other accidental discoveries include Penicillin, x-rays, Teflon, phosphorus and cellophane tape.  The list goes on.

    Indeed, invention is a highly creative process and can be based on quirky or silly mishaps or misunderstandings, where risk is important and flexibility is critical because even the wrong decisions can be right.  Good inventors know that, in research, there is a certain element of luck, and they are ready to capitalize on sudden twists and turns that might develop.

    U.S. Inventor Thomas Edison, who had many ties to Akron, used to say that there is no such thing as failure.  Once, after being asked why after 10,000 experiments he had failed to develop a storage battery, Edison answered: "I have not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."13

    So fortunately, accidents do happen.  Mistakes are made every day by everybody.    However, innovative thinkers like Edison are not only smart and imaginative, they also are alert, flexible and responsive to change and variation.  They see success, even in what others would call failure. 

    As University of Akron graduates, you have gained the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions that create new and exciting opportunities.  So, dream big and do great things. 

    Innovate.  Take a risk, because risks come with a clear guarantee of knowing that, win or lose, you have gained something, simply because you tried.

    And if you don't ask; If you don't try, the answer is always, NO.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere - I salute you, the spring 2009 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations and happy Slinkying!

    * * *


    1. ideafinder.com/history/inventions
    2. ask.yahoo.com
    3. Fernandez, Don, Cox News Service, March 14, 2005
    4. quotationsbook.com
    5. Trivia-Library.com; Wallechinsky, David and Irving Wallace, The People's Almanac," 1975-1981; Harwood, H. James, Professor Emeritus of Polymer Science and Chemistry, The University of Akron.
    6. science.howstuffworks.com
    7. science.howstuffworks.com
    8. science.howstuffworks.com
    9. library.thinkquest.org
    10. science.howstuffworks.com
    11. science.howstuffworks.com
    12. resources.schoolscience.co.uk/pfizer
    13. The World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. E, 1993, p.78



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