Just as a young Isaac Newton stumbled upon the law of gravity while sitting beneath an apple tree and getting bonked on the head with fruit (as the story goes), the young Empress Xi Ling Shi was sitting under a mulberry tree when, compliments of a bug landing in her tea, she made a discovery that also changed the world.

According to Chinese Legend, some time in 2640 BC, while Xi Ling Shi (also known as Xilingshi, Lei-Tsu or Leizu), the teenage wife of Emperor Huangdi (also known as the Yellow Emperor), was sitting in her garden underneath a mulberry tree drinking tea, a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup. As she watched it dissolve, she saw that the cocoon was made out of one long, translucent thread.

Wondering if this thread could be used to make fabric, Xi Ling Shi studied it. What resulted was sericulture, the science behind producing silk, which she is credited with developing. The young Empress and budding scientist is said to have bred silkworms, discovered that feeding them mulberry leaves produced the best silk, and invented the loom to weave the raw fibers they made into beautiful fabric. Not bad for a lazy afternoon in the garden and a fortuitous encounter with a bug.

silkworm cocoon

silkworm cocoons

Silk became a luxurious and expensive item, widely traded and smuggled along the Silk Road, and for two thousand years only China knew the secret to its production, making sericulture one of the longest kept industrial secrets in the world.

That is until around AD 300 – 400. As another legend goes, at this time, there was a Chinese princess betrothed to an Indian man. Out of fear she wouldn’t be able to get silk in her new homeland, the princess decided to smuggle a cocoon in her hair on her way to India. And the rest, as they say, is history…

PS – No one truly knows how much of the legend of Xi Ling Shi is true, but it makes for a great story and historians do know that China was the first civilization to use silk. Today, she is regarded as the Goddess of Silk, revered and respected by the Chinese people.

The moral of this story…

go sit under under a tree. As history has shown, chances are you will get hit by something and consequently come up with a really good idea!

Source: Library of Congress – Notable Women In Science Knowledge Cards, Authored & Created By Aimee Hess