Episode 847: Inventing Accidents

Jun 13, 2018
Originally published on March 20, 2020 3:52 pm

A few years ago, Don McPherson was wearing a pair of tinted glasses on a frisbee field. Don had designed them to protect the eyes of surgeons. Then his friend borrowed them, and saw something he'd never seen before. The color orange.

Don's friend was colorblind. And that moment led Don to figure out something that had stumped the medical world for centuries: How to help the colorblind see the rainbow.

Today on the show: Accidental inventions. Also, Planet Money's Kenny Malone discovers fuchsia.

Music: "Get Up On Your Feet" and "Rubberman."

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KENNY MALONE (HOST): This one's pretty clear to me. This is a six.

SARAH GONZALEZ (HOST): This is PLANET MONEY's Kenny Malone.

MALONE: This one looks bad, too, but I think that's a four. I'm OK with that one.

GONZALEZ: We're looking at a big circle on a computer screen that kind of looks like a bunch of Dippin' Dots, and there is a number in the middle in a different color.

MALONE: Yup. I literally can't see anything there.

GONZALEZ: So the circle of Dippin' Dots is a light gray, and inside, there is the number six in...

MALONE: No way.

GONZALEZ: ...Burgundy...

MALONE: Get out of here.

GONZALEZ: ...Red Dippin' Dots.

MALONE: Where does the six start?

GONZALEZ: It's right there.

MALONE: It starts all the way here.

GONZALEZ: Really? Kenny, you really can't see (laughter).

MALONE: So that's nothing. I see nothing.

GONZALEZ: Kenny and I have known each other for almost 10 years. We used to work together in Miami - very colorful place. And I just found out that Kenny cannot see certain colors. He's one of about 300 million other people on the planet who have some form of color deficiency.

And the medical world, they've been studying colorblindness for centuries, trying to find some cure. It was successful in a male squirrel monkey, but not in humans yet. Color is super complicated. Kenny is literally missing a part of his eye that allows us to see certain colors.

But recently, like a lot of people, I've been noticing these videos. They're videos of people with colorblindness, all of a sudden, perceiving color - little old ladies who've gone their whole lives seeing the world in black and white and red putting on these sunglasses and suddenly noticing all the colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I feel like I'm in heaven. Oh, my goodness. Down there. It must be heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Crying) Thank you.

GONZALEZ: Little kids having their reality suddenly change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Crying) The color.

GONZALEZ: Lionsgate Films gave a bunch of kids with colorblindness a pair of these glasses to watch the latest Power Rangers movie. The cosmetics company L'Oreal marketed a new shade of red lipstick in South America using these glasses. Clorox - Clorox, as in make your brights brighter, they wanted in on this.

And you might think that the medical industry spent years trying to solve this and finally did it on schedule. But that is not what happened here because that's not how inventions tend to work. The guy who gave children the gift of color, he didn't know a dichromat from a trichromat. This whole thing - these miracle glasses, it was all a total accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES OLIVER HUTCHINSON AND VANCE WESTLAKE SONG "GET UP ON YOUR FEET")
GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

MALONE: And I can't tell red from gray. I'm Kenny Malone. Today on the show, accidental inventions. Some of the greatest discoveries in the world happened by accident - penicillin, X-ray images, popsicles.

GONZALEZ: A bunch of scientists were massaging baby rats once. It had nothing to do with human babies, but it accidentally determined how we care for premature babies today.

MALONE: Accidental genius is lightning in a bottle, and people have been trying to capture it forever.

GONZALEZ: But can they? We're going to tell the story of one accidental invention, these miracle glasses, to see if the rest of us can create the conditions for the next great accidental invention.

To get to the guy who accidentally invented these glasses, you walk down a dark concrete hallway in Berkeley, Calif. It's one of those hallways that makes you feel like you need to whisper and duck your head down even though the ceilings are totally normal height. This is so dungeon-y.

KENT STREEB (ENCHROMA): Isn't it? It's so funny.

GONZALEZ: This is Kent Streeb. He's leading me to the inventor.

STREEB: You're back.

GONZALEZ: Meet Don McPherson, former glass blower, current glass scientist. Full head of white hair, takes his good shirt off when he works.

DON MCPHERSON (ENCHROMA): This is a sitting in a chair shirt.

GONZALEZ: OK.

MCPHERSON: Very nice shirt I got in Paris.

GONZALEZ: Smells like incense. Don's office, that smells like incense, kind of looks like an old chemistry lab - ground glass stopper bottles, beakers, pipettes.

MCPHERSON: And flasks and thermometers and all the stuff that goes into allowing you to do some chemistry.

GONZALEZ: As a kid, Don used to wonder why humans would speak to dolphins in human - why we weren't speaking to them in dolphin.

MCPHERSON: So...

GONZALEZ: Would you consider yourself a hippie?

MCPHERSON: No.

GONZALEZ: No? I think you have some hippie tendencies.

MCPHERSON: This is Nebraska. I might...

GONZALEZ: Oh, well, not a Berkeley - no. Berkeley hippie's different.

MALONE: The story of how Don stumbled into the colorblindness industry starts in the 1990s. Remember, he's a glass scientist. And at the time, he was trying to solve a completely different problem that was happening in operating rooms.

GONZALEZ: Surgeons, who were using a certain laser, had to wear this big orange shield in front of their face to protect their eyes. The orange tint did block the laser, but it also made everything else really hard to see.

MCPHERSON: And the surgeons hated it 'cause they couldn't see anything. Everything looked orange.

GONZALEZ: OK, wait. Hold on. What do you mean they couldn't see anything - the surgeons?

MCPHERSON: Oh, well, if you put an orange filter in front of your eye, then everything looks orange. Green looks orange. Yellow looks orange. Red looks orange. So they're trying to do surgery, and they couldn't tell the difference between bones and tendons and tissue and blood. They just couldn't see it, so it may - they had to sort of rely on their deep understanding of physiology to do the work.

GONZALEZ: That sounds terrifying.

MCPHERSON: That's why they get paid the top dollar.

MALONE: So Don experimented with other glass colors, and he created a pair of glasses that still blocked the laser but allowed surgeons to see what they were actually operating on.

GONZALEZ: That was an intentional invention - not an accident. But these glasses, they looked kind of cool. They kind of worked as sunglasses, so surgeons and Don start wearing them outdoors.

MALONE: And one day, Don is playing Ultimate Frisbee with his friend Mike. They're in Santa Cruz.

MCPHERSON: Light breeze, and the fields are just a carpet of green - bright green.

MALONE: Don is wearing a pair of his surgery glasses as sunglasses, and his buddy Mike is like, hey, can I borrow those? He puts them on.

GONZALEZ: And what the hell? Mike's like, dude, when did those cones get there?

MCPHERSON: I said, what are you talking about, Mike?

MALONE: Sure enough, there were a bunch of fluorescent orange cones marking off the playing field.

GONZALEZ: But Mike had never seen orange before. It looked brown to him - so did green - until he put on these operating room glasses. Seeing orange was an accidental side effect.

MALONE: And Don - Don was like, this is amazing. He became obsessed with figuring out how this worked.

MCPHERSON: What is going on here? What have I stumbled onto?

MALONE: He had stumbled onto a problem that 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women have.

GONZALEZ: And Don's thinking, I can help Kenny Malone and all these other people. And sure, the glasses accidentally helped Mike see orange, but no one wants to just see orange.

MALONE: I want to taste the color rainbow, man.

GONZALEZ: So Don goes back to the lab to find the right color mix.

MALONE: Don gets funding from the National Institutes of Health to perfect his magical glasses. And he goes and he finds himself a business partner.

GONZALEZ: Andy Schmeder - real brainy mathematician and former dancer.

ANDY SCHMEDER (ENCHROMA): My passion was actually what they call aerial dance, which was flying through the air, like, on, like, ropes and cables and stuff like that.

MCPHERSON: You were an aerialist.

SCHMEDER: Yeah. It's called an aerialist, yeah.

MCPHERSON: I have an image of Andy that's hard to get out of my mind - half-dressed, perched on a pier in the bay as part of a performance at twilight. Is that about right?

SCHMEDER: Yeah.

MCPHERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. You didn't think Don would partner with some regular old basic mathematician, right?

MALONE: Andy and Don, the math guy and the glass guy, make a computer model of a color-deficient eye so that they can test different filter combinations.

GONZALEZ: So like, the stop sign looks brown, add a filter.

MCPHERSON: Now it looks red. Good.

MALONE: Uh-oh. But now that filter made the grass look brown.

MCPHERSON: Well, let's tinker with the filter.

GONZALEZ: So it's one filter that has just been tinkered with and tinkered with to make sure that as many colors as you possibly can look like the color that they're supposed to look.

MCPHERSON: That's absolutely correct.

GONZALEZ: Finding the perfect blend took years. They're partnering with universities, using clean room conditions, running out of government funding, doing clinical studies.

MALONE: And nine years of research later, Andy and Don had it.

GONZALEZ: The ugliest pair of octagonal-shaped glass sunglasses.

SCHMEDER: The lenses were really small. We had to put them in these tiny little frames, but you could see through it, and it worked.

GONZALEZ: Are you rolling your eyes?

MCPHERSON: They are so heinously unattractive.

GONZALEZ: Like what you'd wear if you just had cataract surgery.

MALONE: But whatever. It was a product. It had a name. They called it EnChroma - means with color. Andy came up with that.

MCPHERSON: And then he regretted it later. He said it should've been two syllables, not three.

GONZALEZ: Why?

MCPHERSON: 'Cause it's like a trend in, you know, Silicon Valley - Facebook, Google, da-da, da-da, da-da.

GONZALEZ: Two syllables. What are you going to do?

MALONE: They make a much more attractive frame. They put up a website. And EnChroma is officially on the market. Don and Andy are psyched.

GONZALEZ: And no one's buying.

MCPHERSON: It was difficult - absolutely.

GONZALEZ: Apparently it's hard to convince people to spend money on something they can't see. Like, buy this, it'll give you purple, and I think you're really going to want to see purple.

MCPHERSON: People say, well, I don't need those because I've lived my whole life without them.

MALONE: And I'm going to be honest. That is exactly how I feel about these classes. I cannot imagine that whatever I've been missing out on is worth $349.

GONZALEZ: And they were actually more expensive when they first came out. And I should say that these glasses only work on people with certain kinds of color blindness. But, Kenny, you've never seen the color purple. You don't know how much purple is worth.

MALONE: I suspect that it is less than $349.

GONZALEZ: People like Kenny, they're not believers. And this happens to inventors because they invented something. It's a completely new product.

MALONE: Yeah, a completely new category even. And people are not necessarily going to believe it's going to do the thing you say it's going to do.

GONZALEZ: This happened with the Xerox machine. All these men were like, we already have typists. They're called women. Why would we need this machine? It took the wives of these men to be like, yeah, no, this will actually save us a bunch of time. Just trust us on this one.

MALONE: It's not enough to just produce a miracle product. Every new product needs a big break.

GONZALEZ: For Don, that big break came in the form of balloons. One employee at EnChroma had this great idea to put deflated balloons in each box of colorblind glasses. People start blowing these balloons up and filming their loved ones seeing color for the first time.

MCPHERSON: And when I saw it, I was like - I had nothing to do with it - but I was just like - my God, that's a world-class idea. It's so simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: For real? This is really how it looks?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, my God.

MALONE: Sarah has been sending me these videos for a month.

GONZALEZ: It's the sheer joy of seeing people see color for the first time. It really like - it makes you want to give these glasses as a gift to anyone you know who is colorblind.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Look at my pants.

(LAUGHTER)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Blue jeans, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: They're blue jeans.

GONZALEZ: People could now see the glasses working. The social proof clinches the message. The videos go viral. And people start buying.

MCPHERSON: Oh, my God. It was just goosebumps from head to toe, like the whole thing. Just - because I had never thought that this was going to happen. I mean, it just came out of the blue.

GONZALEZ: This accidental invention found people who needed it. And so many of the things that we have in the world happened just like this, totally randomly and by accident - the pacemaker, smoke detectors, potato chips.

MALONE: So, of course, companies pour millions of dollars into trying to force the next great accident.

GONZALEZ: They're trying to manufacture serendipity. Serendipity - a word that in itself was a bit of an accidental invention coined in the 1700s by some guy who was obsessed with this Persian fairy tale about three princes skilled in the art of detection in a land called Serendip.

MALONE: After the break, we go to Serendip - sort of.

GONZALEZ: And also I obviously got Kenny a pair of these glasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANUEL KALLINS AND STEPHEN TELLER'S "RUBBERMAN")
GONZALEZ: This magical moment of serendipity that all these companies are trying to tap into on a schedule and on a timeline, how do you do it?

MALONE: We took that question to the authority on accidental inventors - Pagan Kennedy.

GONZALEZ: So, wait. Who am I talking to right now? Is this Pagan?

PAGAN KENNEDY (THE NEW YORK TIMES): Yes.

GONZALEZ: Oh, hey.

KENNEDY: Hi.

GONZALEZ: I have to ask you about your name, Pagan.

KENNEDY: Oh, it came from high school rebellion.

GONZALEZ: Really?

KENNEDY: Yeah. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Her principal kept mentioning God in school. She protested a lot.

KENNEDY: And my friend nicknamed me Pagan.

GONZALEZ: And it stuck.

KENNEDY: Yeah.

MALONE: Pagan used to have a column in The New York Times called Who Made That? She wrote a book about serendipitous inventions. At one point, she even did an analysis and found that 50 percent of patents in Europe were based on accidents.

GONZALEZ: And there's one inventor who taught her a lot about how this works.

KENNEDY: Lonnie Johnson, Dr. Lonnie Johnson, he actually was a NASA engineer in the '80s.

MALONE: He was working on a water-powered heat pump, playing with all these different nozzles. And he noticed that one of those nozzles...

KENNEDY: When the water went through it, it, like, flew out in this very cartoony way and kind of splatted against the wall.

GONZALEZ: Very toy-like.

KENNEDY: And this is similar to your inventor. He fell in love with what he saw.

GONZALEZ: The NASA engineer spent the next nine years demoing this at toy fairs, looking for anyone who would see what he saw in it - a Super Soaker, a high-powered squirt gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The Super Soaker 50 from Larami.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You'll be wet.

MALONE: Pagan says lesson one of accidental inventions stories - sure, finding your funny nozzle is a big moment, but what people do not focus on is the years and years of time and money and obsession it took to finally get the Super Soaker into people's hands.

GONZALEZ: Pagan says just look at the greatest discoveries in science. We know how they came about.

KENNEDY: Giving people lots and lots of money and just try things for years and years and years and years without expecting results.

GONZALEZ: But as you can imagine, people aren't really comfortable with unlimited money and time, waiting for magic to happen. So there's all this enthusiasm right now in tech, in academia, in science to try to make employees more prone to good accidents.

KENNEDY: Stuff about - should your screen be exactly this shade of red or blue? What kind of desk size would make people most creative? Should the desk have three seats at it or two seats?

GONZALEZ: She doesn't know why, but there is currently an obsession with staircases at big universities, like serendipity-causing staircases.

KENNEDY: Very, very fancy staircases that in themselves cost billions of dollars that are supposed to make you bump into other people.

GONZALEZ: Pagan wants to take down these staircases.

KENNEDY: I mean, you know, this is just hype and silliness. If you decide, I want Mary from engineering to mingle from - with Bob in chemistry, and I'm going to make a $3 million staircase where they can bump into each other, you are actually making the surroundings less serendipitous.

You have decided the way, in your mind, a discovery should happen. But you are wrong because accidental discovery is going to be something you can't imagine. It's going to be something completely unexpected and weird.

GONZALEZ: And it'll likely happen in a completely unrelated field and probably because of some chance encounter, like Don's colorblind friend. If he didn't happen to have a colorblind friend on that Frisbee field, he would have never noticed the accidental side effect of his surgeon glasses.

MALONE: Pagan says if you're looking to create accidents, you need diversity.

KENNEDY: The more diverse kinds of people you bring in, what they can observe in the world, like, what kind of accidents they can have and learn from, is going to be really much more of a spectrum.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GONZALEZ: Being the believer in miracles that I am, I got Kenny a pair of these miracle glasses. And I have determined that Kenny is going to fall in love with purple.

MALONE: Yeah, Sarah Gonzalez is a force of nature. And you will not stop her from putting glasses on your face.

GONZALEZ: I grab my inflated balloons and dragged Kenny to a place with a whole lot of colors - a carousel. There is actually one right across the street from our building.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, unintelligible).

GONZALEZ: This will be the place where Kenny discovers fuchsia.

You want the deer?

MALONE: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Not the horse?

MALONE: Yeah, I want the deer.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, unintelligible).

GONZALEZ: Keep my what?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Seatbelt.

GONZALEZ: Oh, my seatbelt.

MALONE: Oh, do we have...

GONZALEZ: Oh, yes.

MALONE: ...To put seatbelts on?

GONZALEZ: Do I have to?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Yes.

GONZALEZ: I do?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Everybody.

GONZALEZ: Everybody (laughter).

MALONE: Not falling off this carousel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MALONE: All right. You ready?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Put them on.

MALONE: OK. Here they go.

GONZALEZ: Today's show was produced by Sally Helm.

MALONE: Oh, my God. The frog is super green. Look at the trash cans. They're so pretty. What color is that? That's amazing. Is that blue?

GONZALEZ: That's like - this is baby blue. And that's like royal blue.

MALONE: Royal blue. It's so beautiful. I couldn't tell the difference in the past. It's like a whole different color.

GONZALEZ: Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.

MALONE: Sarah, Sarah.

GONZALEZ: What? What? What?

MALONE: Is her dress purple?

GONZALEZ: Her dress is purple and pink.

MALONE: Oh, my God.

GONZALEZ: Special thanks to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. They're breaking these lenses up and installing them in viewfinders around the state so that colorblind people can experience the fall and spring colors.

MALONE: This is amazing.

GONZALEZ: OK. I want to show you my favorite flower because I think you're really going to like it now that you...

MALONE: Let's...

GONZALEZ: ...Can see purple.

MALONE: ...Skip there. Come on. We have balloons. We can see colors. Is that what people call fuchsia?

GONZALEZ: Yes.

MALONE: What is happening?

GONZALEZ: Our editor is Bryant Urstadt.

MALONE: Pink/purple - that one's tricky - orange smoothie.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

MALONE: Blue trash can.

GONZALEZ: Kenny's just...

MALONE: Orange La Croix.

GONZALEZ: ...Yelling colors at random people.

MALONE: This is great. Keep up. Keep up.

GONZALEZ: That's Kenny Malone. And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Thanks for listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.