Skip to main content

Connections: A Case of Serendipity

I'm a retired designer with infinite curiosity for people, ideas, inventions, discoveries and circumstances and their surprising connections


CONNECTIONS: A Case of Serendipity

I nibble at my pencil while waiting for literary inspiration… A pencil, certainly not a plastic pen. Wood and flakes of paint have an ancient taste which reminds me of my childhood. Like the smell of Bakelite – a sort of ante-litteram plastic – and celluloid. I still remember the smell and taste of the celluloid duck that I always wanted to have in my bathtub (as a child, of course!).
Speaking of bathtubs, either you think of Marat or you think of Archimedes jumping out naked shouting Eureka! According to one of the many literary tales, seeing his own leg float, he came upon the principle that a body immersed in a fluid experiences a buoyant force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces (which is the reason why iron ships float). The intuition – probably legendary – of this law of hydrodynamics is a striking case of serendipity. Seren-what?
Let’s start at the beginning. Some places haven’t changed their name for centuries, others can’t keep a name that’s a name. Everyone today knows the state of Sri Lanka, but before 1972 it was called Ceylon. His oldest name was Serendib, no, in fact it was Taprobane: it was the Persians who called it Serendib.
In any case, the English writer Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797), in 1754, quotes in a letter the fable: “The three Princes of Serendib” in which the three characters of the title manage to save themselves from a series of misadventures by discovering by chance unexpected truths. Walpole thus coined the term serendipity, to indicate precisely the casual discovery of a result or of a positive fact. The word is more common in English, but exists in all European languages.
Believe me, although these writings of mine give the impression that everything is brilliant and connected, in reality much of what has been discovered or invented is the result of chance, of serendipity.
consider Friedrich Schönbein (1799 – 1868), a German transplanted to Basel in Switzeland (where he is buried).
One day in 1845, taking advantage of his wife’s absence, he began to do some chemistry experiments in the kitchen. After spilling some acid on the table, he tried to clean up the mess with his wife’s cotton apron (typical husband!) which he then hanged over the stove to dry. With the resulting spontaneous explosion, Friedrich realizes that: 1) he has discovered nitrocellulose (also called gun cotton), 2) that he has destroyed the stove.
A dangerous substance this gun cotton, immediately investigated by half the armies of Europe. Too bad that the first attempt to produce it on an industrial scale led to the explosion of the factory along with a large part of the village of Faversham in England. There is also a more romantic note: seven years later, Johann Strauss II will draw inspiration from nitrocellulose creating the “Explosions-Polka”, full of bombastic special effects.
Meanwhile the world was watching in dismay at the disappearance of the elephants (yes, there is a connection). Because of the ivory, of course. It was a matter of choice: elephants or billiard balls. To the point that the renowned New York firm Phelan & Collender offered a $ 10,000 reward to anyone who would find a replacement for ivory. An inventor, John Weasly Hyatt (1837 – 1920), in 1870, mixed Schönbein nitrocellulose with camphor and alcohol and invented a new type of plastic to which his brother gave the name of celluloid. This new miracle of chemistry soon appeared in collars, buttons, fountain pens, vases and of course in billiard balls (curiosity: ping pong balls are still made of celluloid).
Eighteen years later, a former banker named George Eastman (1854 – 1932) will patent a flexible, celluloid-based photographic film. Within a few years, this new support will launch the film industry.
The Eastman’s patent is from 1889 and the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, preparations were in full swing for the inauguration of a colossal engineering work: a tower 324 meters high, designed by a person already well known in America for having erected a few years earlier, in the port of New York, a huge copper statue whose original title was: La liberté éclairant le monde, or the Statue of Liberty. The above mentioned tower, although impressive, was actually meant as a temporary structure: it only served as decoration at the entrance of the 1900 Paris Exposition, on the centenary of the Revolution. The iron structure – as you might have guessed – bears the name of its creator: Gustav Eiffel (1832 – 1923). Gustav had actually designed it for Barcelona, for a previous World Exposition, but the Spaniards had replied that they could hardly afford such an expensive horror and so it was sold – let’s say, second-hand – to the French. Just consider: if things had turned out differently all of us today would go to Barcelona to see the famous Eiffel Tower!
There would be a lot to tell about the tower and the exhibition, but let’s just limit ourselves to the strip under the balustrade of the first balcony. In relief in the iron band, we will see the names of 72 scientists who have given prestige to France. Their names were canceled at the turn of the century and then re-integrated in 1986. Henri Giffard, one of the aforementioned, was the first to mount a steam engine on a suppository-shaped balloon and to conclude a controlled flight in 1852. The big improvement over the balloon consisted in the ability to steer and change directions, not depending on the wind, so the machine was called a dirigible or, more commonly an airship.
Fifty years earlier, an engineer in Napoleon’s army during the Egyptian campaign had tried to impress both his Boss and the Egyptians with a balloon flight to celebrate French glory. Unfortunately the machine had caught fire and the Egyptians were rather unimpressed. Our engineer, Nicolas Jacques Conté (1755 – 1805), was advised not to deal with aviation again and therefore turned to another problem. How to replace graphite in blocks from England that was no longer available due to the embargo. He thus discovered a system that made it possible to mix graphite and ground clay and insert everything between two half-shapes of cedar wood.
What did he invent? the Conté Crayon, still in use today, and one of the ancestors of the pencil I’m nibling on.

Scroll to Continue

Related Articles