The ‘prize accidents’ are all illustrations of ‘Unintended Consequences’ so articulately explored by Edward Tenner in his eponymous TED lecture (thanks Isley).

In fact, he examined the subject of one of those Nobel prize accidents (whose 83rd anniversary of discovery was just last week), Penicillin, in some detail. He took the concept of serendipity even further with a bold claim that terrible times could facilitate brilliant breakthroughs..

“The [twentieth century] saw that invention could benefit from emergencies.  It could benefit from tragedies.  My favourite example of that, which is not widely known as a technological miracle, but it may be one of the greatest of all times, is the scaling up of penicillin in the Second World War… Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but even by 1940, no commercially and medically useful quantities of it were being produced.  A number of pharmaceutical companies were working on it.  They were working on it independently, and they weren’t getting anywhere.  And the government research bureau brought representatives together and told them that this is something that has to be done.  And not only did they do it, but within two years, they scaled up penicillin from preparation in one litre flasks to production in ten thousand litre vats.”

Perhaps more germane to current affairs is not the crisis of conflict, but the economic crisis that surrounds us today. Even here Tenner offers hope asserting that a very high degree of innovation was spurred by the onset of the Great Depression (see graph below). He illustrated the example of the invention of the photocopier…

“Chester Carlson was a patent attorney…upset by low quality and high cost of existing patent reproduction and so he started to develop a system of dry photocopying which he patented in the late 1930s…So we see that sometimes as a result of these dislocations, as a result of people leaving their original intended career and going into something else where their creativity could make a difference that depressions and all kinds of other unfortunate event scan have paradoxically stimulating effect on creativity.”


Unintended Consequences Edward Tenner