Ideas are a dime a dozen, but a good invention can be your winning lottery ticket.

An idea is the concept for an invention.  It can be an idea for improving an existing product, such as a better cushion for an athletic shoe or something completely new, like a transistor.  Normally, an idea will lead to trial and error experimentation that may ultimately result in an invention.  But not always! Occasionally, while in the pursuit of something totally unrelated, an invention is discovered.

Spencer Silver worked in the 3M research laboratories in 1970 trying to find a stronger adhesive.  Silver developed a new adhesive, but it was even weaker than what 3M already manufactured.  It stuck to objects, but could easily be lifted off.  No one knew what to do with the stuff, but Silver didn’t discard it.  Four years later, another 3M scientist, Arthur Fry, a choir member,  became frustrated when his book marks kept falling out of his hymnal.  Remembering Silver’s adhesive, Fry used some to coat his markers.  Success!  With the weak adhesive, the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the pages.  3M began distributing Post-it ® Notes nationwide in 1980 — ten years after Silver developed the super weak adhesive.  Today they are one of the most popular office products available.

Silly Putty is another example of accidental invention.  It was diiscovered in 1943 by James Wright, an engineer with General Electric, while trying to create a synthetic rubber compound for the manufacture of truck tires and boots during WW II.  Check it out! Silly Putty time line:  http://www.sillyputty.com/history_101/timeline/timeline.htm

Like many of today’s great inventions, the microwave oven was a by-product of another technology. It was during a radar-related research project in 1946 that Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer with Raytheon Corporation, noticed something very unusual. He was testing a new vacuum tube, a magnetron, when he suddently discovered that a candy bar he had in his pocket had melted to liquid,  This interested Spencer, so he tried another experiment. This time he placed some popcorn kernels near the tube and watched with an inventive sparkle in his eye as the popcorn sputtered, cracked and popped all over his lab.

The next morning, Spencer decided to put an egg near the magnetron tube. Spencer was joined by a curious colleague, and they both watched as the egg began to tremor and quake. The rapid temperature rise within the egg was causing tremendous internal pressure. Evidently the curious colleague moved in for a closer look just as the egg exploded and splattered hot yolk all over his amazed face. The face of Spencer lit up with a logical scientific conclusion: the melted candy bar, the popcorn, and now the exploding egg, were all attributable to exposure to low-density microwave energy. Thus, if an egg can be cooked that quickly, why not other foods? Experimentation began… And the rest is history.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “imagination is more important than knowledge”

Accidental discoveries should be a constant reminder for inventors to observe and note every step of the discovery process.  You just may find yourself on a different, and perhaps, even more profitable path.

An idea alone is not patentable, but the expression of that idea is an invention which, if novel and useful, may be patentable.
What Can Be Patented: US patent law specifies the general field of subject matter that can be patented and the conditions under which a patent may be obtained.  In the language of the statute, any person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent,” subject to the conditions and requirements of the law. The word “process” is defined by law as a process, act or method, and primarily includes industrial or technical processes. The term “machine” used in the statute needs no explanation. The term “manufacture” refers to articles that are made, and includes all manufactured articles. The term “composition of matter” relates to chemical compositions and may include mixtures of ingredients as well as new chemical compounds. These classes of subject matter taken together include practically everything that is made by man and the processes for making the products.

Mark Sampson