These people had brilliant ideas that have made fortunes… just not for them.
Millions of us have seen inventors make fortunes for themselves and wished we’d thought of their ideas first. But there is another breed out there too: the people who did think of an idea and bring it to life, but then made virtually no money from it. Here we salute those who, through bad luck, bad planning or simple altruism, came up with ideas that made untold fortunes for others but were left with very little themselves.
Google, Amazon, eBay and Facebook are just some of the online corporate giants worth billions; the man that made their existence possible isn’t.
Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer and computer scientist, created the world wide web in 1989. He also designed and built the first web browser. His breakthrough was a system that allowed computer users to share a common language to communicate over a network. However, after laying the foundations for the information super-highway, Berners-Lee did nothing to turn this into a money-making scheme for himself.
Who invented the car? Karl Benz? Gottlieb Daimler? Perhaps Nicolas Joseph Cugnot and his 1769 steam-powered automobile? Well the first petrol-powered cars made in the US were manufactured by Charles Duryea and his brother Frank.
They were originally bicycle-makers, but launched the first commercial, petrol-powered cars in 1896 after seeing the potential of a stationary gasoline engine. But their firm, Duryea Motor Wagon Company, was wound up in 1914 thanks to low sales.
They were right about the potential, though. By the time their firm closed, Henry Ford had sold 250,000 Model T automobiles in the US and was well on the way to changing the way the world worked.
The man who made everything from tyres to raincoats and condoms possible spent his life almost penniless.
Charles Goodyear was a bankrupt hardware merchant when he became obsessed with the potential of rubber. The quest to turn it into a useable substance landed him in debtors’ prison several times and he died in 1860 $200,000 in debt.
The millions made after his death passed him by completely, but the life of poverty and near-starvation did not discourage him. “I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits,” he said. “A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.”
Lying in the bath one Saturday, John Shepherd-Barron was lamenting the fact that he missed bank closing time and so could withdraw no cash until Monday. It gave him an idea.
Over lunch with the head of Barclays Bank he pitched his idea of an automated teller machine, like a chocolate vending machine, that would dispense cash 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The original plan for a six-digit personal identification number for the machine was ditched after his wife complained it was “too many numbers to remember”, so four digits became standard.
There are now more than 60,000 cash machines in the UK alone, with almost £3 billion dispensed a year, but Shepherd-Barron never patented his invention – after worries that thieves might read the patent and be able to crack people’s identification numbers.
Arthur C Clarke
Unlike many almost-billionaires, Arthur C Clarke is famous. His books have sold millions of copies and been adapted into major films, the most famous being 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But it was his idea for communications satellites that could have made him a billionaire. He described a system for putting satellites in orbit, relaying communications all over the globe, in 1945. “I did not get a patent because I never thought it [would] happen in my lifetime,” he explained later on.
How wrong he was. By the time he died in 2008, the satellite industry had made more than £100 billion.
Whale oil – that was the thing everyone wanted in the middle of the 19th century. It was used as fuel for lamps across the world and no one was much interested in smelly and dirty crude oil.
Except, that is, James Townsend. He’d read a report that so-called ‘rock oil’ could be used for illumination, and more besides, and hired former railroad conductor Edwin Drake to find some.
Drake struggled to find a way to collect the oil that sometimes bubbled to the surface in Pennsylvania. Eventually, after spending a lot of money, he created the world’s first oil drill – allowing cheap access to the black gold that would power the world for the next 150 years and make countless fortunes.
Sadly, he didn’t patent it.
Karaoke is a worldwide sensation, but the man who first saw its potential never became rich himself.
In 1999 Time magazine introduced us to Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese musician who first assembled and sold karaoke machines. He came up with the idea while working as a keyboard player in a Kobe club after customers decided to sing along to his playing.
When one of them asked Inoue to travel with him on a weekend retreat to provide backing music, Inoue gave him a tape of his playing instead. That sparked an idea and by 1971 he was leasing boxes with eight-track players, amplifiers and microphones to bars.
Karaoke was born and nights out across the globe changed, but Inoue made little from the multibillion-pound industry. He never patented it.
Every CD you listen to or DVD you watch can only work because of the lasers inside their players, but the man who actually invented the first working laser never saw a penny of profit from his idea.
Theodore Maiman made the world’s first laser in in 1960 using a synthetic ruby crystal, but acceptance of his achievement was slow coming and the – financial – rewards for it almost non-existent.
Maiman only patented the ruby laser and people soon realised that there were several other things you could make a laser from and the patent became irrelevant. Gordon Gould was the man who made millions from the development, albeit after an extensive legal battle.
George Washington Carver
In the 19th century, most farms in the south of the US relied on cotton or tobacco as their sole crops. However, this single-crop focus was destroying the soil – leeching nutrients that were never replaced.
George Washington Carver, born into slavery in the early 1860s, made it his life’s mission to reform southern agriculture. Peanuts and a few other crops, he realised, put nitrogen back into the soil and supplied protein badly needed in many southern diets. So he set to work finding uses for them. He found more than 300, including peanut butter.
When he started, peanuts weren’t even considered a crop in the south. Fifty years later they were second only to cotton and a huge industry had been created around his ideas on how to use them. But he didn’t patent them.
“God gave [these discoveries] to me, how can I sell them to someone else?” he explained.
In December 1947 the world changed. Why? Because William Shockley, along with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, invented the transistor.
At a stroke, the era of the glass vacuum tube was ended and the electronics age had begun. However, this work would not make him rich, as it was done while he was employed by Bell Laboratories.
Shockley eventually left Bell and founded his own firm, based in Mountain View, California. While there he decided to stop research on the silicon chip. Eight of his employees resigned over the matter, starting their own company.
They succeeded and the silicon chip made most of Shockley’s later work irrelevant. Worse, perhaps, two of the eight who resigned went on to found Intel.
The man whose research was instrumental in the founding of the electronics age, Silicon Valley, and who had the integrated circuit board and microprocessor within his reach, simply let them go.
After four billion years of darkness, the Earth now shines at night; we can thank Nicola Tesla for that. But Tesla, one of the most prolific inventors there has ever been, died in poverty.
Tesla can be legitimately credited for many of the wonders of modern life. His Tesla coil is still used in radios, televisions and a host of other electrical devices, and the modern electric motor was invented by him, as was radio.
Perhaps the most significant of all his creations was alternating current. Direct current, which Thomas Edison pioneered, cannot be transmitted long distance. Alternating current can and Tesla convinced the world that it should be. The fact we have power coming out of our sockets at all can be attributed to him, but he sold the patents for power transmission, transformation and electric motors for $60,000.
Tesla spent most of the money on a new lab and, by the time he died in 1943, did not have a penny to his name.
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