What started as an accident in Percy Spencer’s pants became a world-changing invention.

In the late 1930’s Percy Spencer was standing by a device called a magnetron when he noticed a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. From this gooey mess he and the company he worked for went on to invent the microwave. What traits did Spencer have that made him an innovator? 

Here are five things we can learn from this world-changer:

1. Be a Voracious Learner

Spencer’s parent’s died when he was an infant and he had to work a job at twelve years old. When I was twelve I was playing with G.I. Joes and hadn’t noticed girls yet but this cat was working full-time. He had to use what he called “Yankee ingenuity” to survive. He consumed information at the local library and taught himself electronics. When he was on night watch duty in the Navy he read more books and learned a ton of science, chemistry, and metallurgy. Spencer was compelled to learn, and the breadth of knowledge he absorbed uniquely positioned him to make a discovery that changed the world.

2. Be Deeply Observant

I love accidental discoveries; Post-it® notes, X-rays, Penicillin, Velcro®. A lot of people consider the discovery of the microwave an accident too. I disagree. Spencer could have blown off the melted chocolate bar as a weird coincidence or just seen it as a nuisance and gone on with his day. It’s really easy to get so ingrained in your routine that the world turns invisible. I’ve had the same commute for seven years and though I see the buildings and trees when I drive I don’t really SEE the buildings and trees anymore. Spencer paid attention, observed.

3. Be Fearless

What’s crazy is that other people at Spencer’s company had experienced weird things around magnetrons and it scared them. Spencer was not afraid, he was fascinated. Fear is a creativity killer. Granted, something mysteriously melting in your pants would be pretty disturbing, but Spencer’s reaction is the key to his discovery. Fear is the death of the new, the novel, the unexpected.

4. Be Quick to Experiment

As cool as the melted chocolate is it’s really what Spencer did after it that was his genius move. He sent somebody out to get popcorn; they put it by the device and blam! The world’s first microwaved popcorn. This cheap, fast, and utterly simple experiment took him from “There’s a mess in my pants” to “This thing cooks stuff.” I imagine them hunkered over the popcorn and losing their minds when it blows. Experiments don’t have to be monumental, good data gathered quickly has massive value. Before you make a decision, before you set due dates and start planning, do some quick “popcorn” style tests.

5. Be Willing to Change Course

The company Spencer worked for, Raytheon, built radar devices; they did not build ovens. The microwave was a massive course change. Two critical points:

  1. They were willing to change course
  2. They didn’t stop doing their original work

Raytheon didn’t stop making radar devices, but they did peel off a team to work full-time on developing the microwave. In Silicon Valley “pivot” has come to mean completely changing course, wholesale jumping ship from your original idea to something new and it’s seen as a gutsy, hardcore move. In reality, most of us work for companies that will never make that hard of a pivot, I know I sure don’t. But we can peel off a team and chase down world-changing ideas if we’re willing to do so.

I don’t expect to ever do anything that changes the whole world, but I certainly believe I can change my world; my environment, my circle of influence, the people I care about. Adam Savage (of the Mythbusters) said: 

“A true creator knows that you follow the thing to where it’s going, not to where you think it ought to go.” 

That’s what Spencer did and it’s how he changed the world, and that’s what you can do to change yours.