Serendipity and Invention

Creating Products and Experiences Through Luck and Skill

The invention of the microwave was a product of just the right amount of serendipity and persistence.

Interestingly, Percy Spencer, an engineer for Raytheon, wasn’t trying to create a new kitchen appliance. He was testing magnetrons (which produce radio waves) during World War II in order to ramp up production for the US military to satisfy their radar needs.

While Spencer was trying to improve the power levels of the magnetrons, he noticed a candy bar in his pocket had melted. Of course, if it had been a normal chocolate candy bar, that wouldn’t have been much to write home about since simply having a candy bar in your pocket will probably melt it. But Spencer always carried around a peanut cluster bar in his pocket both for a snack and to feed the squirrels and chipmunks during his lunch break, according to his grandson.

Other people may have discounted this or disregarded it, but Spencer was curious. So he started to put other food under the magnetron tube. First he exploded an egg. Then he popped popcorn.

The idea of the microwave was born.

In 1947 the “Radarange” was the first commercial microwave, cost $2,000, and weighed nearly 750 pounds. It took another 20 years for the invention to really catch on across the US, but as the cost decreased along with the size, most Americans came to own a microwave.


There was a lot of serendipity in the invention of the microwave, as there is with most inventions. Percy Spencer was an incredibly curious person, which was why he was on the magnetron project to begin with. He also happened to carry around a candy bar that wouldn’t have melted without some outside influence. He then persisted in experimenting with the idea.

The company also persisted with the idea. The first microwaves were expensive and heavy. There was also some fear around a new electronic cooking device. But they were able to develop smaller, more affordable version and after 20-30 years, make a significant impact. That’s a long time. Maybe not back then, but certainly now. It’s hard to imagine any company today persisting with an idea or invention with slow adoption for more than 6-12 months before giving it up.

The key, though, is that many factors came together just right to create an invention that so many of us know and love. Sure, it doesn’t make the best food. But it can certainly get a bowl of soup heated in 60 seconds.


Product Development and Serendipity

Finding the interesting amid the noise (or the radio waves) is critical. It’s what Instagram did in 2010. Originally the app was Burbn, a location sharing app where users could check-in, earn points, make plans with friends, etc. Similar to Foursquare at the time.

But the founders didn’t feel like it was compelling enough. All except the photo-sharing aspect of it. So they narrowed in on that, stripping out everything else but photos, commenting, and liking. And Instagram was born.

Fortunately, it was very well-received. More-so than most other apps we can name to this day.

Instagram, through some luck and skill, found the thing that people really wanted: to apply interesting filters to photos and easily share them. And they ran with the idea, creating a simple yet powerful experience.

Segment, the customer data platform, had to change directions several times. It started life as a classroom lecture tool, to help professors know if students were understanding the content. But that flopped hard. So the company moved to data analytics. But after about a year, found that the market was saturated and they couldn’t break in.

With money running low, they were about out of ideas. The last move involved an internal Javascript library the company had developed to deal with all the data it was collecting, and then funneling to different analytics services. Basically simplifying the pipeline for developers. They decided to offer it up and see if others would be interested, even though Peter Reinhardt, their CEO, thought it was a terrible idea.

It blew up. As the article above states, “Developers could now place one piece of code onto their websites that allowed them to use dozens of analytics services.” As Segment built out their offering, users could better manage their growing customer data, personalizing it and managing it across different services, bringing insights together more easily.

After multiple failed attempts at a business and several products, an internal library Segment had developed to make life easier for themselves turned out to be just what everyone else needed as well. And turned into a massive business.

But it may have seen the light of day if the other ideas had worked out. Or if they had bombed more spectacularly. Or if Segment had pivoted initially into something different. Serendipity.


Creating Serendipity

It’s one thing to understand luck and serendipity in invention and product development, but it’s another to harness them. Luck and serendipity, by their nature, can’t be relied on for consistent product development and invention, but we can prepare to take advantage of serendipity whenever it arises. So what can we do?

Get Curious

Like Percy Spencer above, we can create more opportunities for serendipity by being curious. Rather than overlooking the unusual, or even the normal, we can look at everything with curiosity.

Why is the candy bar melting? Why do users do that? Why is the world the way it is? What happens if we change X or Y?

In a previous article, I wrote about getting curious and the Lessons from Sherlock Holmes. We need to be curious about our world. We can do that by better observing what is happening. Rather than passively moving through our lives and our products, actively pay attention and observe. So for more ideas, check that one out.

Cross Ideas

Serendipity often happens at the intersection of disciplines or fields or experiences. The best ideas for products and inventions often cross domains, or take many different ideas and put them together.

The invention of the first spreadsheet, Visicalc, was the conglomeration of multiple ideas. Daniel Bricklin, one of the creators, imagined “what if my calculator had a ball in its back, like a mouse…And …imagine if I had a heads-up display, like in a fighter plane, where I could see the virtual image hanging in the air in front of me. I could just move my mouse/keyboard calculator around on the table, punch in a few numbers, circle them to get a sum, do some calculations, and answer ‘10% will be fine!’”

Bricklin drew on several different ideas and fields to bring together the idea for the first spreadsheet, which revolutionized many industries. And as much as we may not like spreadsheets, they are still one of the most powerful tools we have today.

Bringing together a variety of ideas from different areas goes for most create thinkers too. In his book Range, David Epstein talks about this. “Rather than obsessively focusing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interest. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”

Create Chances

The best way to score goals is to take lots of shots. The best way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas. The best way to create luck is to create lots of chances.

Some of the best ideas for products or features come from ideas about how customers are using existing products. So you have to get out and talk to users and see what they are doing.

One of the easiest pitfalls to run into is not talking to users and customers. It is fundamental to product development, but way too often takes a backseat to many other things that product managers and designers have to do. But how can serendipity strike without lots of opportunities for someone to make an offhand comment? Or for you to see something that makes you ask ‘why’?

Have lots of conversations. Try lots of ideas. Create many chances.

Have Fun

An article for TechCrunch talks about Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, the founder and CEO of Sugru, a London-based startup that makes an amazing moldable adhesive for repairing any physical object.

She started playing with different materials, combining them and simply having fun without a specific purpose in mind. This led to the beginnings of the product that led to her company.

Having fun is something kids know how to do well, and we often forget as adults. But it is critical.

When we have fun, we allow ourselves the opportunity to put new ideas together, like above. We also are able to better find flow, that state where we are completely immersed in an activity and time passes imperceptibly.

It may not always bring about the next million-dollar-idea, but it can set the stage for it. Or at least free our minds to solve important problems and be open for serendipity.


Often the best ideas, products, or experiences aren’t the ones we’re actively looking for. They are the ones that come together when hard work and luck meet.

Serendipity.

That can take the form of a completely new invention, like the microwave oven. Or a new product feature. Or a new business process. But we have to keep a curious mindset and be ready for these opportunities. When a customer shows us a completely different way they are using our product, it’s not that they’re doing it wrong, it could be a new opportunity. Which is why it’s critical to talk to users and see things in the wild.

So get out there, experiment, and create some serendipity.

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