November 3, 2014 / 8:36 PM / 5 years ago

Eureka moments born outside the office

(This article was produced independently of Reuters News. It was created by the public relations department of Thomson Reuters Intellectual Property & Science division, and Reuters Brand Content Solutions.)

Looking for the seeds of innovation? Try stepping outside the office, the lab and away from the desk. Some of the best breakthrough ideas bloom just about anywhere.

“It’s clear that creativity doesn’t respond to the standard drivers of productivity. Your boss may say, ‘Be more creative’ or ‘I’ll pay you more if you’re creative,’ but this is unlikely to have much of an impact on your creativity,” said Josh Lerner, an innovation expert who teaches at Harvard Business School.

Rather, he says, creativity “seems to flourish in settings where the mind is on down time.”

For Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the television, creativity took root in a potato field when, in the 1920s, he watched his disc harrow tilling the soil and envisioned tiny lines of electrons in tubes. For the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes, it was while stepping into the bathtub that he received an epiphany for his volume-displacement principle and proclaimed, “Eureka!”

That exclamation of triumph — Greek for “I’ve got it!” — preceded a multitude of other amazing innovations born outside the workplace. Here are five other memorable eureka moments:


Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th-century epiphany for the printing press came to him when he was on a booze break. The inventor was living in the Rhineland region, which is reputed for its vineyards.

As the story goes, Gutenberg decided to attend a wine festival when he began observing the devices crushing grapes to produce juice.

“He was somebody who had been goldsmithing and knew a bit about letters and how to use lead,” said Bob Krim, director of the Entrepreneurship Innovation Center at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. “But it was living in the wine district that really gave him this idea to take the top part of a wine press and put it on top of paper on a lead pipe, and slam the whole thing down.”

Gutenberg’s revolution sped up book printing and revolutionized the way people transmitted information.


Leftover turkey from Thanksgiving dinner proved to be the right ingredient for innovation in the case of Rangaswamy Srinivasan, who helped to pioneer LASIK surgery.

In 1981, Srinivasan and his IBM colleagues had been searching for the right organic matter on which to test their excimer laser, believing they could use the device to make etchings into tissue via pulsed ultraviolet light without harming surrounding cells.

“One of the reasons we know that LASIK Surgery can do what it does today is because one of the inventors had this moment with a piece of leftover turkey and realized, this is it,” said Rini Paiva, executive director of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Va.

So Srinivasan packed the scraps and brought them to the lab. After firing the laser at his turkey bone, he helped develop a surgery technique that has since corrected the eyesight of more than 30 million patients.


Edwin H. Land may not be a household name, but his Polaroid Corporation is. Had it not been for a trip to the Grand Canyon, the American scientist may never have come up with his popular instant Polaroid camera.

It was while snapping photos of his family at the geological marvel that Land’s three-year-old daughter asked him a question that would set him to inventing.

“She said, ‘Why can’t I see the picture you just took of me?’ and it got him thinking,” Paiva said. “Probably within an hour, he came up with this concept of instant one-step photography.”


Some perfect ideas come like a bolt from the blue, as Paul McCartney experienced, waking up with the melody for ‘Yesterday’ already in his head.

“I just fell out of bed one morning and had the tune,” he told the BBC in an interview about the Beatles ballad, which upon its release in 1965 went on to sell a million copies within five weeks.

Even with that melody, though, McCartney’s initial germ of an idea needed some work. Mostly, it needed proper lyrics.

Before it was voted the No. 1 pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone in 2000, the ditty languished in McCartney’s mind under the working title Scrambled Eggs.

An early version had the less-than-introspective chorus: “Scrambled eggs / Oh, my baby, how I love your legs.”


In its early years, toymaking giant Mattel primarily specialized in picture frames and dollhouses. That changed after co-founder Ruth Handler’s invention.

Handler had noticed her pre-teen daughter, Barbara, role-playing with childlike paper doll figures in the 1950s as if they were grown, fashionable women.

“She realized girls don’t just want baby dolls; they want to look ahead to what a young girl can aspire to,” said Marlene Wagman-Geller, who relates the anecdote in her book “Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World.”

Inspiration struck when Handler traveled to Switzerland and spotted a voluptuous female figurine in a shop window — an adult gag gift. “That become the prototype for the most iconic toy in the history of the world,” Geller said.

Handler and her husband named the toy after their daughter and introduced it at the New York Toy Fair in 1957. Their son Kenneth eventually became the namesake for Barbie’s male companion.

Today, three Barbie dolls are sold somewhere in the world every three seconds, according to Mattel.

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