Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Chest Pains and Tritones

1853 marked chemist Charles Gerhardt’s invention of a new medical chemical.  Initial tests showed that his chemical caused stomach problems when ingested.  Therefore, instead of working to improve his recipe, Gerhardt abandoned his discovery (1).  

However, in 1899, German chemist Felix Hoffmann rediscovered Gerhardt’s chemical and refined the synthesis process.  With the synthesis process improved and stomach complications reduced, Hoffman saw potential in the health benefits of his chemical (2).  

Unfortunately, his boss did not see that same potential.  When Hoffmann proposed this product to his boss, Hoffmann received a reply letter scoffing that “[Felix’s product] is typical Berlin hot air.  The product is worthless” (1). 

Does this creative product ring a bell? At this point could you tell me what Hoffmann synthesized?  Are you familiar with this chemical that Hoffmann's boss bluntly rejected?  
I dedicate this post to the underdog inventions, or those late-bloomer ideas teeming with potential yet lacking the right audience.  These cases I present today are a few of thousands of innovations initially doubted by investors or ignored by the general public before any hard-earned success.  Fortunately, these examples overcame the skepticism of the general public, while many other bright ideas are yet to receive the time of day.  Hopefully, from these few examples, perspectives on foreign ideas may become more accepting.

We see cases like this every day, from vetoed bills and untouched suggestion boxes to inventions brutally shot down in the television show Shark Tank on Channel ABC.  An example from one of my favorite Shark Tank episodes is when Travis Perry, a humble entrepreneur and music teacher, presented “Chord Buddy,” a product that aids in learning to play the guitar.  Five sharks listened to Perry’s hard work and effort invested in the product, yet only one shark Robert Herjavec considered jumpstarting the company with $150,000 (chump change for the sharks).  In fact, notoriously nasty shark Kevin O’Leary vocalized his lack of faith in the product and insensitively instructed Perry to burn the patent.  However, in hindsight, O’Leary is kicking himself over rejecting Chord Buddy, the revolutionary musical teaching device which presently grosses millions of dollars in profit each year, thanks to Herjavec, an open-minded audience member, for believing in the bright idea (3). 

Even composer Igor Stravinsky, my creative for the group project, wrote scores that did not receive immediate applause.  In response to one of Stravinsky’s ballets in particular, riots ensued outside the opera house.  Audience members insulted Stravinsky’s avant-garde musical dissonance with the use of tritone chords and chromatic scale layering, not to mention his ballet’s austere plot line of a woman dancing herself to death.  Nevertheless, Stravinsky remained true to his musical score and inspiration and barely edited his ballet to conform to the complaints of the crowd.  Today we know this work as The Rite of Spring, one of the most recorded and performed musical works around the world.  In fact, I remember playing an excerpt of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in one of my high school orchestra concerts (4).

Listen to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at the link below:

In an interview with Dave Melcher (reading), jazz musician Greg Osby sums up the trials and tribulations of composing for an audience as if he stood in the same shoes of Stravinsky after that first performance of The Rite of Spring.  Osby describes improvisational musical technique and musical creation as a deliberate experimentation to push the buttons of the listener.  Reminiscent of Stravinsky, and all other unconventional inventions, creative minds want to challenge the precedent and strike a chord with the general public in the hopes that the general public accepts the new mode.  Osby reflects that tritones (the same dissonant chords used in Stravinsky’s work) sound jarring and wrong to the untrained ear while, to Osby himself, tritones have worth, for they sound striking and make a strong emotional statement in musical compositions (5).  

Osby continues to shed light on the unfortunate truth that unfamiliar things are more easily turned down, that “unfamiliarity is a generator for rejection” (5).  He warns that if you keep starting from the same musical motif, your music will lose its originality and implode.  This point stresses the importance of diversity of ideas in a skeptical world of “naturally intolerant human beings,” for inventors with bright ideas must be extremely persistent if initially the general public does not see the product’s worth (6). 

From these papers, I begin to question how many brilliant ideas went to waste and were not later accepted.  How much is close-mindedness to blame for missed opportunities? 

With that said, I will ask you one more time whether you recognize Hoffmann’s product. 

After the boss’s initial rejection, Hoffmann showed his persistence and resilience as a creative inventor.  He continued to refine his product and test the chemical’s medical effects on patients, from his dad with arthritis to neighbors with chest pain (2).  In 1900 Hoffmann pitched his new and improved product to a German company named Bayer, where the chairperson interceded and advocated to sell the product.  This chemical was initially incorporated in chewing gum for children who just had their teeth pulled, for Hoffmann’s chemical reduced pain and prevented blood clotting (1).  By the 1970s final modifications to the synthesis of Hoffmann’s drug yielded a pure product of salicylic acid, a blood thinner and pain reliever (2).
Over one hundred years ago, salicylic acid, better known as aspirin, was shrugged off as “worthless.”  Today this same aspirin product prevents millions of heart attacks and prolongs lives for several years (2). 

Consider creativity as lightning in a bottle, as discussed in class. Stravinsky, Perry, and Hoffmann captured lightning and harnessed it into various applications, from newly synthesized chemical bonds to clever teaching aids and strident musical chords.  As we discussed in class, popularity plays a part, for a creative product stems from not only an idea and an inventor but also the effect it has on the people of that situation.  With the possibility of facing skepticism, the inventor must have “willingness to take an enormous risk with the whole heart, soul, and mind on something where only he or she knows the impact—if it worked—would be utterly transformative” (6).The frustrating irony of invention is that some of the most impressive and significant discoveries reveal themselves at the wrong time and consequently suffer rejection, if not a very humble beginning.  Fortunately, Stravinsky, Perry, and Hoffmann had the persistence to persuade others that their lightning was bright.  

My solution to overlooked ideas lies in a public more open-minded to trial and error and more comfortable with the unfamiliar. That being said, this post can be a start of a new mindset or simply one thousand words glossing your eyes.  Now it is up to you the reader to make of it what you will!  Will you miss the lightning flash or capture it and run with it?  Lightning strikes fast and never in the same location.

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