Great inventors who failed to profit from their inventions

Everyone knows the names of the great inventors: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and even Steve Jobs. They invented products that changed our everyday life and were rewarded handsomely for it. Their inventions brought them great financial success.

However, not all inventors were that lucky. There are many stories of inventors whose inventions are an integral part of our daily life, but they either never received the recognition they deserved, or failed to profit from the success of their inventions.

Let’s explore some of these great inventors, and the inventions which failed to bring them fame or money:

Forgotten great inventors #1: John Walker – matches

The chemist, who invented the matches, came up with his discovery by pure mistake, when he was working on creating flammable substances and a piece of wood with some dry chemical substance at its end burst up in flames.  

Happy with the practical nature of his discovery, he created and sold friction matches made of splinters of wood, or cardboard, dipped in a flammable mixture.

While he sold around 250 boxes of 50, he chose not to patent his innovative concept. That probably was the wrong decision to make, as it allowed anyone with the same idea to start manufacturing and selling matches himself.

To illustrate the potential profit lost -today more than 500 milliard matches are being sold in the United States alone. Walker didn’t receive neither wealth nor fame for his invention, and was credited with his invention only after his death.

Forgotten great inventors #2: Alexey Pajitnov– Tetris

If you are old enough to have been at least 10 year old in the 80’s you know what Tetris is all about, and you might even remember the phenomenon that the game has created world-wide.

The addictive computer game was invented by videogame and computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 while working for a government agency lab in the former soviet union.

Since he was a government employee his invention belonged to the government and he didn’t receive any royalties from it. It was only in 1996, when Pajitnov immigrated to the USA and formed a company around his invention, that he started enjoying some financial gains from his highly successful game.

While he didn’t receive the financial gains he could potentially have enjoyed from his invention, he was years later recognised for his creativeness through several awards, including being named: the fourth most influential computers game developer of all time, the ultimate 'video game one-hit wonder' and recognised for pioneering the casual games market.

Forgotten great inventors #3: Harvey Ball – The Smiley face

Bell, a designer who owned his own advertising agency created the famous smiley icon for a commercial campaign in 1963.

An insurance agency was trying to fight employee’s low morale following a merger and commissioned the smiley to be used on pins in order to remind employees to smile and be happy at work.

The design became a famous icon, and within the first decade after its creation more than 50 million pins with the smiley face, were created  and sold, not to mention the plethora of merchandising using the yellow face that became popular throughout the years.

Bell didn’t enjoy the financial results of his creativeness – he made a measly 45$ for his original work (around 315$ in 2010 inflation adjusted value). He never applied for a trademark or a copyright of the design, and reportedly never regretted the decision, even after he witnessed the huge success of his creation.

Forgotten great inventors #4: Geoffrey Dummer – The microchip (The integrated circuit)

Geoffrey Dummer, a British electronics engineer came up with the idea of the first integrated circuit (today known as the microchip) in the early 1950s. He created the first prototype at a conference in Washington in 1952, but generated little interest. Only 6 years later an employee at Texax Instruments applied and was awarded a patent for what was essentially the same idea Dummer had.

Dummer was later credited as the "The Prophet of the Integrated Circuit", but in fact he came up with the same invention but didn’t reap the rewards.


Forgotten great inventors #5: Richard Pearse - the first flying aircraft

It is claimed that in 1903 Pearse, a New Zealand farmer and inventor managed to fly and land an aviation machine. The date of his experiment is claimed to have been about 9 months before the Wright brothers managed their first famous aircraft.  

There is contradictory evidence as to what exactly happened and the date of the reported flight, but Pearse remained an anecdote while the Wright brothers achieved eternal fame.

Forgotten great inventors #6: Louis Le Prince – The first moving picture on paper film

While Thomas Edison has famously received the credit for inventing the first film, it was the French inventor Louis le prince who is credited with using a paper film to shoot the first moving picture in 1888.

The moving picture documented a street scene in Leeds England. His achievement gave him the title ‘the father of cinematography’, but only several years later, without his ability to benefit from the fame.

Prince himself disappeared 2 years after shooting the film, on his way to perform a public demonstration of his movie, from a train – his body and luggage were never found.

Not long after Edison has tried to take credit for the invention of the film, Le Prince son appeared as a witness in court trying to claim his father was the first to come up with the idea but was never given the opportunity to prove his claim.

Forgotten great inventors #7: Daisuke Inoue– Karaoke machine

Inoue a Japanese musician who used to work in a band backing businesspeople who wanted to sing in bars, providing background music for their lead came up with the idea of a Karaoke machine to allow those wanting to sing to do so without the help of a live backup.

In 1971 he created the first Karaoke machine using a coin box, a small amplifier and a car stereo.  

Karaoke means empty orchestra and basically refers to music without the actual lead singer.

He didn’t write a patent for his invention and didn’t profit from the invention itself, which created a market worth billions of dollars. He did continue working in the industry and got some recognition years later.

The fame and credit for the invention of the Karaoke machine has been given to Roberto Del Rosario, who came up with the sing along system – essentially the Karaoke machine.

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