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Eureka Moments Revealed

Audio

Aired 7/21/10

Hear the surprising stories behind ideas that shaped the world, as compiled by a San Diego author.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It can happen anywhere, in an airplane, at home, at the zoo or in a bathtub, a moment of inspiration that creates world-changing ideas and life-changing decisions. It's a eureka moment the instant when a new idea is born and many of the most influential innovations in human history can be traced back to one. San Diego author Marlene Wagman-Geller explores these moments of inspiration in her new book, “Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World.” Marlene, welcome to These Days.

MARLENE WAGMAN-GELLER (Author): Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: Now what is your definition of a eureka moment?

WAGMAN-GELLER: My definition would be when the light bulb flashes, you know, that long elusive idea that’s been fermenting for years that just becomes crystal clear and you slap your palm to your forehead and say, I got it, that’s it.

CAVANAUGH: Now the term eureka has – came about, famously, back in ancient Greece. Tell us about that.

WAGMAN-GELLER: In ancient Greece, it was actually in Syracuse, there was a mathematician Archimedes, and he was working on a mathematical principle and when he stepped into his bathtub the water level rose and that sort of triggered his – the mathematical principle of displacement, and he was so excited he ran through the streets naked, through Syracuse, screaming eureka, which was ancient Greek for ‘I found it,’ and that’s, of course, become part of our English lexicon.

CAVANAUGH: Now not all eureka moments are that dramatic.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Running naked through the streets of Syracuse...

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WAGMAN-GELLER: …no.

CAVANAUGH: Now you – but you say that many of these actual moments happen when the people come up with the idea are out of their element or in foreign countries or exposed to new things. Is that a similarity that runs through some of these eureka moments?

WAGMAN-GELLER: Well, I think it’s just happenstance that some of them did – were born in other – were in other countries when they came up…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

WAGMAN-GELLER: …with that moment. But creativity is like what makes something spark, like sometimes everybody sees the same thing. Why does one person, you know, it spark that creative thing in them? So I think really the locale wasn’t really the issue.

CAVANAUGH: Well, are there any similarities then that connect these moments of inspiration?

WAGMAN-GELLER: Well, I think one similarity is, well, they all did have that aha moment but another one is most people told them, like the nay-sayers say you’ll never do anything, it’s just a dumb idea, and they said I think it will, so I think they all had the power of perseverance and a belief in oneself against other people’s negative opinions.

CAVANAUGH: What, in your book, “Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World,” what is – would you say was the best example of that kind of perseverance?

WAGMAN-GELLER: For the best example of perseverance, well, one was Barbie Doll. That’s just what comes to my mind. And it was in the 1950s, the only dolls for girls were Chatty Cathy or Betsy Wetsy, and Ruth Handler was watching her daughter Barbara at the kitchen table and she was assigning grown-up dolls for her role, you know, grown-up role models to her dolls.

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And then Ruth Handler said, ah, you know what, the market’s ready for a new kind of doll. And she approached Mattel with her idea and they said, no-no, mothers are never going to buy, you know, a grown-up looking doll. And she said, I think they will. And she called it Barbie. Her daughter’s name was Barbara, and that’s how she got the name Barbie.

CAVANAUGH: And she just – she got that flash, that light bulb when she just saw her daughter playing with these baby dolls and basically saying that they’re grown-ups.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Right, right. And she said, well, my daughter’s like symptomatic of other girls. They don’t want to just be with, you know, be grown-up mothers. They want to project themselves into the future as teens and, of course, it became like an iconic doll of all time.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And, you know, Mattel, the board of directors were all male so she had to, you know, sort of get through them to expose her idea. So that would be an example of perseverance with your idea and not letting people say it’s a dumb idea.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Starbucks, everybody knows how popular and how successful that chain has been. Is there a eureka moment that Starbucks hinges on?

WAGMAN-GELLER: Yeah, Howard Schultz, he was working. He was in New York and he was working for a Swedish-based coffeemaker company. And they sent him on a convention to Italy and his eureka moment was he was walking from his hotel to the convention center and he saw the coffee bar in Italy with the baristas making the coffee and people standing around having drinks and all kinds of, you know, lattes and cappuccinos. And in those days, you know, what most Americans thought coffee just came from a can.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And, you know, if you wanted to go out for coffee, there was no such thing as a coffee shop, it was just at the end of the meal, you’d have a coffee. And his eureka moment is that’s what America needs. So here’s another example of perseverance. So he goes back to his company and they go, no, it – bad idea. And he start – and then he approached Peets Coffee in Washington and they said, no, not a good idea. And that’s when he branched out on his own. And just the origin of the name Starbucks is in “Moby Dick” there’s a character…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WAGMAN-GELLER: …who’s always swilling coffee and his name was Starbuck, and that’s how they got the, you know, the logo.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with author Marlene Wagman-Geller. She’s from San Diego and her new book is “Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World.” Well, speaking of San Diego, you include a very, very famous San Diegan, the late Ted Geisel and the story behind Dr. Seuss. Tell us that.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Dr. Seuss, his – Theodore Geisel, was his name. And he was on a honeymoon trip with his wife to Europe and somehow the – and he was working for an advertisement company and somehow the rhythmetic (sic), you know, beating of the waves, it put a rhyme in his head and it was something like, this is a story that can never be beat, I think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And that rhyme just was on his mind, it just kept getting in his mind and then he said, you know what, this can make a good children’s story. And had he not done so, he would still be working for the advertisement company. And he called himself Seuss, which was his mother’s maiden name.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s amazing. That’s – and, again, another one that happens out of town.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Oh, that’s right, because that was the middle of the Atlantic.

CAVANAUGH: Now what is it that takes a moment like that, a moment of eureka, a moment of inspiration, and turns it into something that shapes the world?

WAGMAN-GELLER: Well, I think it was sometimes an idea whose moment has come and that’s why, you know, people were receptive to it. Had it maybe come at a different time, it would not have had happened. And the moments that I chose were ones that really became iconic or something that everybody would be familiar with. That was one of the criteria for inclusion.

CAVANAUGH: And I was surprised to learn that the Taj Mahal actually resulted from one of these moments of inspiration.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Right, that actually, I think, makes us look at the Taj Mahal differently…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

WAGMAN-GELLER: …because it really is a mausoleum. I don’t know if most people know that. But his, the Shah of India at that time, he was – his wife, his favorite wife—he had three of them—but her name was Taj, which means ‘beloved of the palace.’ And she was dying giving birth to their 16th child and as she lay dying, she said, you know, build a monument. Create some kind of monument to our love that so it won’t be forgotten. And his inspiration was the most elaborate tomb, and he called it after her, Taj, the Taj Mahal, and that would be whenever anybody saw it, it’d be reflective of their love, and also that was a way of overcoming his grief. And she’s placed – her tomb is right in the middle of the Taj Mahal and when he died, his body was placed beside hers.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, doing this book, Marlene, you must have been thinking an awful lot about eureka moments of inspiration. Do you have any moments of inspiration like that in your own life that you’d like to share?

WAGMAN-GELLER: Well, I think my eureka moment was coming up with a book with the eureka moment.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And, really, the genesis was I had written a prior book the year before. It was called “Once Again to Zelda: The Story Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications.” And writing the book brought me so much joy. It just did so much for my life. And then I was driving to work and then I was thinking, I have to come up for an idea with another book but then it was a miracle I came up with one idea. I thought how could I ever come up with two, right? Does lightning strike twice? And then it just hit me as I was driving to work, it said – because when you write a book, people invariably ask you, well, how’d you get the idea?

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And then I said, that’s it, everything that we know around us had to have start (sic) with that creative spark. And then I said, well, what were the stories? And I was holding a Starbucks in my hand because that’s my treat for going to work, and I said, well, how did somebody get the idea of putting a mermaid on a cup, giving it an Italian name, four dollars, and yada-yada, live next door to Bill Gates. And so – and then I thought well amazon.com. I thought, everybody knows amazon.com but then I did research, who’s thought of amazon.com? Why did he give it that name? And that was sort of – And then I knew some of the stories like Barbie or Winnie-the-Pooh. I had been familiar with some and then that’s how I researched it. And it was interesting because you said what’s the common denominator. And when I told my husband the idea, he said, nah, stick with the dedications. So, you know, you can’t listen to people sometimes. You know, you just have to say, well, you know, don’t quit your day job. Well, I’m not quitting my day job but I think it might work, you know.

CAVANAUGH: So you have your own naysayer.

WAGMAN-GELLER: I had my own eureka moment and my own naysayer, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, what’s really fascinating about your book, “Eureka,” is the wide range of stories that you have. As you say, you have Starbucks, you have amazon.com, but you also have Slinky. Tell us where that idea came from.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Well, that was actually during World War II ship. And there was a Naval engineer and his job was to stabilize the instruments on deck. And then just through happenstance, a coil fell from the shelf and started – onto the deck and started walking across it. And he said, whoa, that’s a great toy. He said, no assembly, no battery, it sounds great. So he had five children at home and when he went back on leave, his five kids absolutely loved it. So he said to his wife to come up for a name. Let’s market this as a toy. And she said, well, I named five kids, I never named a toy. But she looked in a dictionary and she saw a Swedish word ‘slinkity’ which meant like a soft, sinuous sound. And that’s what they called it, Slinky. But kind of what intrigued me about doing the research is sometimes the background story behind the eureka moments were even as interesting because they started the company, the Slinky company and the husband, he became enamored of some Bolivian cult, a religious cult, and he was funneling all the Slinky money to Boliva. And finally he said to his wife, you know, you and the five kids can come to Bolivia but I’m out of here. And she declined. But then she took the company and she was a single mother, five kids, and she took a bankrupt company and she ended up getting inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame. So that was another one of real perseverance under great odds.

CAVANAUGH: You are absolutely right, and talk about backstories, that – the story you have about the creation of the screenplay and the play based on – that “Casablanca” was based on is just amazing and how for years and years the screenwriter took all the credit when it was really the playwright’s.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Right, and I was just – You know, when I first thought about doing that one, I did “Casablanca” because I love that movie.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And then when I heard the background story, how it was pirated from the rightful owner, that was like to me a real eye-opener as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now you teach ninth grade English. I’m wondering how, or if, you use your own experience in writing and publishing to inspire your students. Is this in National City?

WAGMAN-GELLER: I teach in National City. I’m here right now.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

WAGMAN-GELLER: Well, in a way, you know, kids are naturally inquisitive so they love hearing background stories and – and also I use it to teach them. You know, when you look at things, sometimes see below the surface, like I say, you – I’ll use Netflix. How did somebody get the idea? And then I tell them the idea and they like that. Or I say – They love the story of Winnie-the-Pooh and they have – they think it came from Disney. They have no idea that, you know, the background stories. So sometimes I share it with them and they really like it, so it was – it’s a fun classroom teaching tool.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Marlene, I just want to mention, in closing, you have a book coming out in January. What is that one about?

WAGMAN-GELLER: That one’s called “And the Rest Is History,” and what it is, it’s a compilation of how the great lovers in world history from the Biblical times to the modern, what were the forces of the universe that inspired them to meet, and it was about their first encounters and then their subsequent stories. And it goes from Jacob and Ruth in the Biblical time to Celine Dion and her husband, the whole spectrum, you know, in one volume. And, you know, when you meet, some kid will ask you, well, how did you meet? You go da-da-da, and then you say, and the rest is history.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Yeah.

WAGMAN-GELLER: So that’s how we got the title.

CAVANAUGH: Marlene, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

WAGMAN-GELLER: And thank you so much for having on, it was my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Marlene Wagman-Geller. Her book is “Eureka!: The Surprising Stories Behind the Ideas That Shaped the World.” If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. And coming up, new ideas about what to feed your pet. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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