It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” It is an idiom that has been adopted from the more specific insight of Greek philosopher Plato. In Republic, Plato writes, “A need or problem encourages creative efforts to meet the need or solve the problem.”

In the modern era, some have dubbed these creative efforts, even the word creativity itself, as “intentional discovery.” I know it seems odd to refer to discovery as intentional, until you look at the number of discoveries that have moved the human race forward that were uncovered by accident.

In 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon was working with a microwave-emitting magnetron “when he felt a strange sensation in his pants.” The melted candy bar in his pocket led to the microwave oven. In 1942, Dr. Harry Coover of Eastman-Kodak Laboratories hoped his invention, cyanoacrylate, would be a good fit for a new precision gun sight. It wasn’t. It stuck to everything. However, 16 years later his patented “goop” began selling as “Krazy Glue” and the world now has a host of new and revolutionary epoxies and bonding agents.

In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was conducting what was described as a “routine experiment” with cathode rays. He noticed a piece of cardboard in the room became illuminated. To satisfy his curiosity, he blocked the cathode emitter from the cardboard with a screen, proving the illumination was the result of the rays. His confirmation became X-Ray imaging that helped revolutionize medical care today.

While serving as an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, Wilson Greatbatch mistakenly grabbed the wrong-sized resistor for the heart recorder he was building. “The resulting circuit produced a signal that sounded for 1.8 milliseconds, and then paused for a second — a dead ringer for the human heart. Greatbatch realized the precise current could regulate a pulse, overriding the imperfect heartbeat of the ill,” and the first permanent, portable pacemaker was born.

Of course there are a few examples of these “accidental discoveries” that we really can’t categorize as moving the human race forward, such as the Slinky and Play-Doh. Then there are the innovations and inventions that were discovered and developed intentionally, but grew passed their initial intent and become something more, something that revolutionized the way we all live. The internet is probably the greatest and most obvious example.

As a response to feared aggression by the Soviet Union that could disrupt the United States’ national telephone system, the proposal was to establish a way for computers to talk to one another. Since the development of “packet switching,” transmission control protocols and internet protocol (TCP/IP), the progression to the internet as we know it today would be described as less of an invention or discovery and more as an evolution. And that evolution continues with the Internet of Things, as well as just about every facet of the quality industry, including our technology, its software and the systems we use to manage it.

So check out “Taking Measure,” “Ready for Your ISO Audit?” and “The Future of Management Systems,” all in this month’s Quality.

Enjoy and thanks for reading!