Chance plays an important role in bringing many innovations to fruition, but it’s rarely chance alone that does the trick. What matters is “serendipity”, a term coined in 1754 by the writer and politician Horace Walpole. He described it as a product of “accidents and sagacity”.

It’s a safe bet that without the sagacity, many scientific and technological breakthroughs would not have turned out half as well as they did. Here are a few shining examples of serendipity at work.

Purple reign

Teenagers can be troublesome, and that was certainly the case with William Perkin. The 18-year-old chemistry student had big plans. In 1856, he worked over the Easter break to turn an organic chemical called toluidine into the antimalarial drug quinine.

In his home lab in East London, he added a variety of substances to toluidine and a related chemical, aniline. The result was a …

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