The commercial success of technology depends on its need and the market conditions. Sometimes technology is developed that initially seems not to be successful (either commercially, technically, or both). This technology becomes abandoned and may lie dormant for a time until conditions change or the technology is seen in a new light, and then "O-Boy" do things change.
It continually amazes me how some new technology never seems to actually die. Instead, it often sits on the "shelf" or remains in a dormant state until the right time, and then mysteriously finds a life. There are several examples of this in the adhesives industry that are summarized below. I find them most interesting because they are a testament to one's perseverance, observation, and ultimately - good luck.
The "post-it note" is one example of this. The pressure sensitive adhesive that made the "post-it note" was originally one of many failed attempts by 3M researchers to develop a high strength adhesive. However in 1970, 3M Scientist Spencer Silver found that the properties of a certain formulation were particularly interesting. It stuck to many substrates, but could also be easily removed without a trace. It could easily stick paper, notes, cards, etc. to almost any surface and be removed with equal ease.
After trying and failing to convince his management of the commercial application for such a product, Silver started using the adhesive in his own office for the purposes that now are all too well known. Then, four years later there was the inevitable change in management. Silver's new manager, Arthur Fry, was a member of the church choir, and he was continually irritated by the fact that slips of paper he placed in his hymnal to mark pages would fall out when the book was opened. One visit to Silver's office and the many notes plastered to the walls and a solution was found. More importantly, he immediately saw the commercial implication of such a product. The rest is history and has led to a great revenue stream for 3M.
Another immensely successful "discovery" was cyanoacrylate adhesives or "superglue". In 1942 Dr. Harry Coover was developing clear plastic to make precision gun sights. One of the materials that he was working with was cyanoacrylate, but this had the unfortunate effect of polymerizing on contact with moist surfaces, causing greater mayhem in the laboratory. Six years later, Coover was working at Eastman Chemical and realized the importance of cyanoacrylates in forming a strong adhesive bond. After some refinement, "superglue" is well known to almost everyone.
Velcro, the fabric with loops and hooks, was originally invented back in 1948. The idea came to Swiss Engineer George de Mestral - not in his lab but after walking his dog. After a walk in the woods, Mestral and his pet came home covered with burrs that were extremely difficult to remove. After removing one or two of the burrs, he examined them under the microscope to see what caused their great sticking ability. It was covered with hooked strands that he realized would cling to loops in fabric. The idea took some development, but in 1951 mistral applied for a Swiss patent on an early version of Velcro, and in 1955 he opened a factory to manufacture the material.
Other "accidental" discoveries related to adhesion are now engrained in history:
Teflon -- Roy J. Punkett, a DuPont Chemist, noticed one day that a cylinder that was supposedly full of tetrafluoroethylene inexplicably showed no pressure. In a rather gutsy move, Punkett cut open the cylinder and found an extremely slippery white powder with a very high melting point - Teflon. After determining how the material can be practically produced, DuPont began manufacturing the product in 1946.
Fingerprinting -- Although the science of fingerprinting goes back to the nineteenth century, it was not a widely applied forensic tool until 1982 when researchers at the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory accidently cracked the glass on an office fish tank. When they tried to patch it together with cyanoacrylate, they noticed fingerprints standing prominently on the glass and the prints were difficult to remove. The fumes from the cyanoacrylate condensed on the oils in the fingerprints, rendering them visible and useful for documentation. Thus, cyanoacrylate is now part of every CSI's toolkit.
I am sure that there are many other examples of unintended scientific discoveries. I now often refer to my old, unsuccessful projects in hopes of finding technology that was perhaps prematurely "buried". Often an idea that was overlooked now appears promising in a new light and a new environment. The trick is to have a little perseverance, good observation skills, and a bit of good luck.
posted by Asit Ray, Marketing / Sales at DIC India Limited Chemicals Division
Very interesting indeed.
I would add , the discovery of polyethylene oxide by the erstwhile UCAR - dark polymerised material found in the ethylene cylinders in the yard.
Thats serendipity -as described by the UCAR booklet on POLYOX