9 Inventors That Created Hugely Successful Items, But Were Still Poor

Recent news in the app market have centered around the claim that “Candy Crush Saga” the popular swiping puzzle game was potentially a remake of a less popular “CandySwipe.” The creator of the duplicated game lamented the difficulty of competing in court with such a powerhouse that the Candy Crush developers, (aptly named) King, have become. This issue sheds light on what seems to be a consistent problem in the realm of patents and copyright law. Unfortunately, inventors find it very difficult balancing the altruistic motivation to disseminate their product for public use and the individual desire to be recognized for it.

Here I have compiled a short and oftentimes distressing list of great thinkers who have met the end of their lives penniless, or in debt. These geniuses have contributed numerous inventions that make our lives more convenient but did not, in the slightest, get their due.

There are two noticeable trends we can see when we are looking at the list below. First, people are always interested in capitalizing on the work of others. In every case, the inventor who didn’t get their due is offset by someone else who got it for them. Second, human beings, like the inventors listed here, have the capacity for a strong sense of duty, striving for social progress. Sometimes it’s great to invent things just for the sake of the goodness it will spread – the convenience and comfort it brings people and the increase in their standard of living.

The first few entries on this list did not die broke, per se. However, legal struggles and idea-theft left them in a position that was disproportionately less than their contributions.

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9 Dan Bricklin: Spreadsheet Program

We already know the benefits of an electronic spreadsheet – ease of use, professional formatting, instant calculations. Most importantly, compared to their hardcopy counterparts, spreadsheet programs allow an individual the flexibility to change and rearrange cells without having to transpose an entire document. This is thanks to Dan Bricklin who developed the first spreadsheet program “VisiCalc” in 1979 with his partner Bob Frankston.

Unfortunately, like in many innovative technologies, patents categorically didn't exist for Bricklin’s invention. It wasn't until the program was in circulation two years later that the Supreme Court ruled that it was patentable. Nevertheless, both creators were satisfied with the positive effects their creation would have on the world, not disappointed about losing profits. Furthermore, Bricklin’s story continues. Since releasing VisiCalc he has founded many companies and contributed countless ideas to software and business.

8 Gary Kildall: Operating System

CP/M was the first operating system used for the personal computer (first called a microcomputer due to its relative size). When IBM was looking for an operating system, they approached Microsoft first, but were rejected. After paying a visit to Kildall and Digital Research Inc. stories abound as to why he didn't pick up the contract (one claims that he was literally out flying). Either way it is strung, as the story goes , IBM went back to Microsoft when one of its workers, a young Bill Gates, approached a local programmer named Tim Paterson who created a replica of CP/M called QDOS. This would later become the MS-DOS system that was placed in every computer and gave way to the modern operating system. It seems that Gates’ business savvy won out over Kildall’s technological expertise.

Kildall, however, was not left in poverty. After missing his big opportunity, he sold DRI to Novell Inc. for $120 million. He did, however, harbor a lifelong resentment toward Gates and IBM which compelled him to write a scathing memoir and perpetuated a struggle with alcoholism. He died in Monterey California in 1994 from a head injury sustained after a barroom fight with a number of bikers.

7 Joseph Swan, Humphrey Davy, et al.: Light Bulb

Thomas Edison did not create the light bulb, or at least not from scratch. No, arc lighting, which uses a filament filled with electrical current, had already been created forty years before, in 1835. Since then, inventors were racing to improve the design that often lasted for too short a time and used or dispersed too much energy. Aside from the two listed in this tile, James Bowman Lindsay, Heinrich Gobel, Warren De La Rue, Nikola Tesla, John W. Starr and many others also conceived of and produced a similar, or nearly the same design as Edison’s incandescent light bulb. The subsequent patent wars were fierce and contributed to the impoverishment of many. Each inventor charged the others that their design infringed on their patent or was a duplicate.

6 Thomas Edison: Light bulb

Edison’s affiliation with the light bulb did not end at the invention itself. He is renowned as the “inventor” (though we can see that that is a contentious title) of the light bulb but in fact his contribution is much wider. He conceived of many inventions that made the use of light bulbs more efficient, practical and widespread.

Upon his death, Edison supposedly left $12 million behind in his will from his inventions. However, a close confidant and biographer, Remsen Crawford, claims that he in fact died quite poor. In an interview, he notes a few explanations for this. First, as we can tell in the previous entry, there were many people competing for the right to patent the light bulb as their own. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say who in fact did so first but nonetheless, each person who fought to secure the rights had an extremely problematic time fending off “pirates.” Second and in following, litigation was extremely expensive even then. Although it seems that lawyers found a lucrative method to extract money from the famous invention, no inventor truly got their due.

5 Edwin H. Armstrong: FM Radio

Edwin Armstrong is accredited for establishing the basis for modern radio technology. This all began with a problem with current radio circuitry – there was too much static. In 1933, Armstrong solved this problem by creating advanced systems that modulated the frequencies of outgoing signals. As a result, any natural phenomenon that created static electricity was unable to penetrate onto broadcast.

Upon propagation of his new found research, Armstrong was confronted by many unhappy individuals. Established broadcasting industries cringed at the idea of replacing all of their current transmitters and receivers and consequently, he had to build the first FM station himself for $300 000. The Second World War and post-war regulations also proved difficult. Then, as FM radio began to gain recognition, he was forced to engage in concurrent patent suits. Finally in 1954, ill and destitute, Armstrong took his own life.

4 Antonio Meucci: Telephone

Like the light bulb, the telephone has many claimants, including Johann Philipp Reis, Innocenzo Manzetti, Daniel Drawbaugh and Edward Farrar. Although many believe that Alexander Graham Bell was its inventor, more information is surfacing about a man named Antonio Meucci who may have invented it five years earlier. This is mainly because Meucci filed a patent caveat (which is done in the beginning stages of invention to secure the conception of a device rather than the device itself) in 1871.

As is common for inventors, Meucci poured himself and his money into his creation. As a result, he was unable to commercialize his invention as necessary. After learning that the laboratory he was working with lost his working models and due to his dependence on public assistance, he was unable to renew his caveat in 1874. Heartbreakingly, Meucci used the telephone system he had invented to contact his wife who had developed crippling arthritis by running a cord from the basement where he worked to her second-floor bedroom. Although he died in poverty, a vote by the House of Representatives in 2002 (113 years after his death) recognized Meucci as the telephone’s rightful inventor.

3 Johannes Gutenberg: Printing Press

Gutenberg gave the world movable type and the Gutenberg Bible, potentially the most important invention and book respectively for centuries to come. Before this, the duplication of works was done by hand, often by orders of monk. With the printing press, books could be copied en masse. However, his contributions were not met with the renown in his lifetime that he is given in ours. Twice he tried to establish a viable printing company where he managed to print his famous Bible and other works. However, both times his finances were rescinded by their owners.

Gutenberg died in obscurity in 1468 after his second financier, Johann Fust, reclaimed ownership of the printing business he had established. This reclamation was part of the contract they had made and stemmed from Gutenberg’s immense debt.

2 Charles Goodyear: Vulcanization

Rubber was already widely circulating as an effective water-resistant layer in many articles of clothing and other items when Charles Goodyear became fascinated with the substance. However, in the 1830s when it initially became popular, the harsh winters and summer heat would result in a puddle of sticky gum rather than the material that was intended. Investors and businessmen lost millions and the rubber market was halted.

At that time and until his death, Goodyear was living in abject poverty with his family (often squatting in the attic, tenements or shed of a friend and once even living in an abandoned rubber factory) and often served regular stints in jail from debt. Until, that is, his countless hours of experimentation led him to quite a discovery. He stumbled upon a variation of rubber mixed with nitric acid that left it smooth and dry. This vulcanization process would revolutionize the industry and the world we know today.

This did not improve his own situation however. A strong sense of ethical duty coupled with insatiable curiosity led Goodyear to disband any manufacturing projects (he instead asked his brother in law to produce the material) so that he could continue to improve his findings. He also fought 32 patent infringement cases before his death including one involving Thomas Hancock who reverse engineered and “reinvented” weatherproof rubber to sell in England. At the time of his death, Goodyear was $200,000 in debt.

1 Nikola Tesla: Radio, Electricity, the Light Bulb, etc.

Many People revere Tesla in contemporary times. He’s quickly rising to something of a folk hero. A prominent aspect of this is due to the man’s stilted genius, unfair treatment, and poor living conditions. His inventions include an alternating current power system (the core of any electricity supply), variations of the fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs including his famous Tesla coil, the electric motor, radio (years before Marconi), remote control, wireless communications and contributions in X-ray research.

After taking a job with Thomas Edison in New York in 1883, the two began arguing over the relative value of alternating and direct current. This conflict often left each in a less than satisfactory state. From here, stories diverge. Many argue that Tesla had been marked by rival inventors (including Edison), businesses (including J.P. Morgan) and the government who all had reasons to suppress his designs and leave him in poverty. However, this would be incorrect. Tesla found himself in a financially comfortable position for many years, throwing parties at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and showing guests his many experiments. He was also offered many rewards and recognition including (potentially) the Nobel Prize for physics (1915). He was also  on the cover of Time Magazine for his 75th birthday (1931). It seems as though Tesla’s poverty was self-imposed, stemming from a pure motivation to advance human knowledge at all costs and often throwing himself and his money into his work.



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