Most people don’t live to be 94. Most people don’t receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Most people also don’t invent, by accident, an extremely useful and widespread super-substance. Harry Coover, who died Saturday, did all these things.
In what have been a very messy moment of discovery in 1942, Dr Harry Coover of Eastman-Kodak Laboratories found that a substance he created – cyanoacrylate – was a miserable failure. It was not, to his dismay, at all suited for a new precision gun sight as he had hoped – it infuriatingly stuck to everything it touched. So it was forgotten. Six years later, while overseeing an experimental new design for aeroplane canopies, Coover found himself stuck in the same gooey mess with a familiar foe – cyanacrylate was proving useless as ever. But this time, Coover observed that the stuff formed an incredibly strong bond without needing heat. Coover and his team tinkered with sticking various objects in their lab together, and realised they had finally stumbled upon a use for the maddening goop. Coover slapped a patent on his discovery, and in 1958, a full 16 years after he first got stuck, cyanoacrylate was being sold on shelves.
Coover died over the weekend, according to his grandson – but not before racking up a PhD, 460 patents and a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Not bad for a guy who stumbled upon his greatest creation. So, the next time you stick together a broken plate (and not your fingers), pause and thank Dr Coover’s serendipity. [SF Gate]