Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 1


A few weeks ago, Art was making up the grocery list when he asked if we needed graham crackers. I said that I thought we had enough, but sometimes I can go through them pretty quickly. He then grinned and said, "I don't want you eating too many of them."

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Well, you know why they were invented, don't you?" he answered.

I didn't, but I had a hunch I would soon find out.

"They were invented by a minister who thought their bland taste would help curb a person's sexual appetites."

Now if I would have received this information in an e-mail that had been forwarded a hundred times from someone I didn't know, I'd have written it off. But Art seems to be a virtual warehouse of random facts. So, I thought I'd check it out.

It turns out that 187 years ago, Reverend Sylvester Graham did indeed invent the flour that bears his name and did seem to be unusually focused on the subject of reining in carnal urges. Perhaps as the 17th child in his family, he knew something about the subject.

His original cracker was made with "graham" flour, which according to Wikipedia, is a combination of finely-ground unbleached wheat flour with the wheat bran and germ coarsely-ground and added back in.

Those aren't the same graham crackers I eat. Mine are sweet and go down great with a nice glass of cold milk. It's one of my favorite night-time snacks.

Art said I should check out the Kellogg folks as well - the people who brought us the corn flake.

John Harvey Kellogg shared many of Graham's ideas, including that "reining in" thing, and, along with Kellogg's brother Will, came up with their popular breakfast item.

Art said what intrigued him about these inventions was not the motivation, but the fact that they became wildly popular and have remained popular for reasons unrelated to the inventor's original goal. As further examples, he suggested I check out Viagra, Post-It notes and Teflon.

A little research revealed that the commercial product Viagra - that might be thought of as having an anti-graham cracker effect - was actually developed to aid people with heart problems. Reduced circulation due to partially blocked vessels in the heart causes pain. Sildenafil - the chemical name for Viagra - was developed in England and is a member of a family of drugs that helps relax blood vessels. While it was thought it might be used to treat heart problems, the tests in South Wales were a complete failure. But some of the men in the test noted it had an unexpected effect for which the drug is now widely prescribed.

The Post-It note is something that relies on a research failure as well. 3-M employee Dr. Spencer Silver was looking for a strong adhesive, but ended up producing a product that was anything but strong. But when placed on a material such as paper, the adhesive remained sticky with repeated uses and did not transfer to the item it was pressed against. According to Wikipedia, years passed before Art Fry, a colleague, decided to use it on bookmarks in his hymnal and concluded that maybe others would find it similarly useful.

In contrast to the Post-It note situation, the invention of Teflon, so widely used in everything from non-stick frying pans to high-temperature wire, was a complete accident. Art explained that most air conditioning systems use a refrigerant compound consisting of chlorine and carbon atoms. In 1938, chemist Roy Plunkett at DuPont was looking for a new one. During one experiment, he noticed that all of the gaseous chemicals hadn't left the container they had been stored in. The iron in the container had acted as a catalyst and the gases had changed into a slippery coating. We know how that worked out.

Years earlier, I had heard the story of how Velcro came to be and remembered it was something of an accident as well. Doing some research of my own, I refreshed my memory. The key figure was George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer. He was walking his dog one day when he encountered those annoying burs that cling to your clothing. But rather than treat them solely as an annoyance, he pondered if their tenacious clinging nature could be duplicated in a manufactured product. It took him nearly 20 years until he was able to produce a commercially-viable version of the now ubiquitous fastener.

While the births of all of these products seem to have a common feel, the only thing they really share is hard work and a sort of disconnect between the initial goal and the successful outcome. De Mestral set out for a leisurely walk and unexpectedly discovered his life's work. I imagine he was pleased. Health-food guru Graham set out to develop a component of a healthy diet and gave us a sweet treat. I presume if had lived to see what his product had become, he would be disappointed.

But, such is life. And given that today is April Fool's Day, perhaps it is an appropriate day to celebrate the surprise visited on these men.

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