10 Inventors Who Made No Money on Their Inventions
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 23 May 2017.
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 23 May 2017.
In the grand mythology of America, one of the surest paths to wealth is through invention. Build a better mousetrap, as the saying goes, and you'll be able to sell mouse corpses for a profit. And there have been inventors who have amassed enormous personal fortunes on their ingenuity.
But not all of them do. In fact, some inventors end up with squat from their hard work and have to watch as other people rake in the big bucks. For numerous reasons, making a profit off your bright idea can be hard to do. Some didn't have the capital to manufacture, others had their concept swiped and produced before they could take action.
Come with us as we meet 10 men and women who had the spark of genius but weren't able to translate it into a fat wallet.
1. Catherine Hettinger
If you're reading this from some distant time in the future - like, say, 2019 - you might not have any idea what a "fidget spinner" is. For a hot minute, they were the most unavoidable fad of 2017. Consisting of a ball bearing around which a piece of plastic or metal rotates, they burst into the public consciousness like thunder, and it seems like every person under the age of 18 owns at least one. That would normally be good news for the inventor, but Catherine Hettinger - who had a patent on the design - was forced to let it lapse in 2005 because she couldn't afford the US$400 it cost to renew it. That decision came back to haunt her in a big way, because she might be a millionaire by now - or maybe not, as the vast majority of spinners are made in fly-by-night Chinese factories who don't give a rat's ass about your patent.
2. John Walker
Your perception of the world around you changes when you realize that every single man-made object in your life was deliberately thought up by another human being. Case in point: matches. The idea of scraping a little stick to make fire seems like it's been around forever, but they were actually invented in 1824 by a British chemist named John Walker. Walker was unusual among his peers for his willingness to experiment with various man-made substances, and when he came up with a sulfur paste that sparked when it was scraped on a rough surface, it wasn't long before he was selling the world's first friction matches. Walker refused to patent his invention because he was concerned with the safety of the flame, so billions of dollars in profit was made off of it without him seeing a dime.
3. Daisuke Inoue
It's hard to think of a cultural phenomenon that has had the reach or staying power of karaoke. That kind of invention comes along once a generation at most. That's why it's painful to hear that the man who came up with the concept and built the first karaoke machines never saw a dime from it. Daisuke Inoue was the drummer in a Japanese bar band that would let salary men hop up on stage and croon along to their favorite hits. One day, a guy asked him to record backing tracks so he could sing without the band, and karaoke was born. In 1971, Inoue produced eleven units of the Juke 8, a standalone machine with an 8-track tape player, a microphone, and a coin slot. He never patented the idea, and it wasn't long before more technologically sophisticated karaoke machines were all over Tokyo.
4. Tim Berners-Lee
Without the invention of Tim Berners-Lee, you wouldn't be reading this article. No, he didn't come up with the bathroom break. While working at CERN in the late 1980s, he wrote a proposal for a method to share hypertext documents over the Internet, creating what we know as the World Wide Web. That nefarious network of websites has come to reshape the way we live in the modern world, but Berners-Lee didn't patent his concept. Instead, he released the protocol out into practice, and it wasn't long before everybody was using it. He's done pretty well for himself even without that payout, though, and was knighted a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2004.
5. Ron Klein
There are hundreds of millions of copies of Ron Klein's invention in the United States alone, one of the most important developments modern capitalism has ever seen. You see, he invented the magnetic stripe on the back of your credit or debit card that lets stores scan and connect to your account to pull money out. Back in the day, stores had to check numbers against a huge list of bad cards manually, and it was a royal pain. Klein took the same technology used in reel-to-reel tape recorders and affixed it to the back of a card, then encoded the number on it and created a scanner to compare that data with a regularly updated database of bad cards. He never patented the magnetic stripe idea, so it was quickly adopted by pretty much every company under the sun. Don't cry for Klein, though, as he did just fine from a bunch of other inventions.
6. Nick Holonyak, Jr.
Here's a great example of an inventor who was way too ahead of the game. Nick Holonyak was an engineer at General Electric, working with a group that was trying to find a way to get diodes to produce visible light. Holonyak suggested mixing gallium arsenide and gallium phosphide, which was mocked by the chemists until it worked. The era of the LED was born, and in 1963 he did an interview with Reader's Digest where he predicted that they would replace incandescent bulbs someday. That did happen, but Holonyak didn't stop, working at the University of Indiana to develop multiple other colored LEDs as well as the first quantum well laser (the kind used in CD players). And he was right - incandescents are finally on the way out, although he's not getting a royalty for every LED bulb you buy.
7. Laszlo Biro
To be fair, Laszlo Biro did sell the patent for his invention fair and square to the Bic corporation for US$2 million, so we can't say he made "nothing" from it. But considering that over a trillion ball-point pens have been sold in the interim, Biro certainly could have done better for himself. The Budapest-born inventor was frustrated by the ink in fountain pens taking too long to dry, so he developed a rolling ball tip that could work with thinner, faster-drying pigment. The end result was the ball-point pen, which he debuted in 1938. Unfortunately, financial struggles dogged his company and he was forced to sell the patent to Italian businessman Marcel Bich, who used it to found a multi-billion dollar company.
8. Shane Chen
There's only so much time to cash in on a fad, and if you don't strike while the iron is hot, you can miss out. The inventor of the "hoverboard" - the deceptively named two-wheeled motorized vehicles that were all the rage a few years ago - missed his chance, but he's pretty chill about it. Shane Chen patented the idea in 2011 and started a company, Hovertrax, to sell them at around a thousand dollars a pop. The problem, though, was that Chinese companies could manufacture them in bulk of inferior materials and retail them for a fraction of that. Sure, they caught fire sometimes, but what doesn't in this fast-paced modern world? Chen is a relentless inventor, though, and already has a handful of ideas for what he thinks will be the next big thing.
9. Douglas Engelbart
A lot of these tales involve inventions that are simply too far ahead of their time to be profitable. In 1961, Doug Engelbart came up with a device that would let computer users select a coordinate on the screen. It involved a pair of wheels at the bottom of a wooden block that would record movement and translate it to the machine. The patent was granted to his employer in 1970, but shortly after, a Xerox scientist took Engelbart's concept and modified it to use a ball instead, which was enough to file for a separate patent and cut him out of compensation entirely. Just being the first person to have an idea isn't enough if someone else can implement it more effectively.
10. Jonas Salk
When Salk came up with the vaccine to eradicate polio and released it to the world in 1955, newsman Edward R. Murrow asked him who the patent belonged to. "The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" Common wisdom says that Salk refused the patent because he wanted the global health crisis of polio to be abated, but actually the Salk Institute had explored the possibility only to conclude that an application would likely be denied due to the "prior art" clause. Whatever the reason, the fact that such a nightmarish disease has been mostly swept from the earth is a testament to how an invention can change the world without making its creator a ton of money.
Top image: Catherine Hettinger (right) and her invention, the fidget spinner (left). Credit: Video screenshot InformOverload/YouTube.
[Source: PC Magazine. Top image added.]