Because of many brilliant men and women, our lives have changed for the better. While we enjoy their creations, or benefit from them simplifying our lives, one would imagine that they made millions or even billions from selling them. But in reality, not all inventors are rich and in some cases, weren’t even able to earn a dime off of their precious creations. Let’s find out about 5 such unlucky inventors.
1. Shane Chen
Shane Chen is an American inventor and entrepreneur who is best known for inventing the self-balancing two-wheeled board, popularly known as the “hoverboard”. Chen filed a provisional patent application in 2012, and in 2014 his patent was granted. Hovertrax was the first self-balancing two-wheeled board of the type but his creation was too expensive for general consumers.
Chen was unwilling to use cheaper materials since he wanted to ensure that his creation was safe. Others however saw an opportunity to cash in by creating cheap knock-off’s. As Chen had feared, the cheaper models were extremely hazardous since they were created with the cheapest materials available. Today, the hoverboard industry is worth billions but Chen has not been able to pocket most of the fruits of his labor.
2. Catherine Hettinger
In 1997, Catherine Hettinger designed, created and patented the Fidget Spinner to help people who have too much nervous energy and trouble concentrating. Since then, she tried to convince many manufacturers to take her creation but no one saw potential in it.
The chemical engineer from Florida spent a ridiculous amount of time to invent it but years later, the patent was about to expire. Catherine had to pay a $400 renewal fee, which she was unable to afford; forcing her to let the patent expire.
Others however, saw this as an opportunity to make big bucks. Prowling eyes took the idea, made it in bulk and started selling it. Within days, the Fidget Spinner became a fad, creating new millionaires, but not its original creator. Hettinger’s daughter says she is not bitter about what happened: “She doesn’t care about the money. She’s just happy people are enjoying it.”
3. John Walker
John Walker, an English chemist, accidentally discovered the first “friction match” in 1826. He combined a mixture of sulfur and other materials that were coated on a wooden stick, and rugged paper that was coated with phosphorus.
During the next few years, Walker managed to sell numerous matches of this design but he never patented his invention because he believed that it should be freely available to mankind.
That principle however did not stop Samuel Jones and Charles Sauria from profiting from Walker’s idea. Even today, billions of matchsticks are sold every year, which means, Walker and his family could have earned billions in revenue annually.
4. Walter Hunt
Walter Hunt was a nineteenth century inventor who created many practical things. Among his many inventions, Hunt is best known for creating the safety pin and making the first workable sewing machine. Hunt, however, failed to profit from any of his inventions.
In 1833, when Hunt invented the first workable sewing machine, he did not patent it because he believed it would put seamstresses out of work and also put his family in debt. Things however took a turn in 1846 when Elias Howe, Jr. filed a patent for a sewing machine that was based on improvements made on Hunt’s machine.
In 1853, Hunt finally filed for a patent for his 1833 creation. Even though his was recognized as the original design, Elias Howe, Jr.’s patent was filed first, which remained in effect. As Hunt and Howe, Jr. were trying to work things out, Isaac Merritt Singer snuck in with a design that contained both of their designs.
While Howe, Jr. managed to take Singer to court and win, Singer was already successful from selling his product, ultimately taking over the sewing machine industry. In 2018, the global industrial sewing machines market size was valued at $2.29 billion.
5. Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Carl Engelbart was an American engineer and inventor, and an early computer and internet pioneer. He is known for developing the graphical user interface among other revolutionary inventions. While he was no Steve Jobs, there was one invention of his that would change the world forever.
In 1963, at a conference in Reno, Nevada, Engelbart conceptualized the device that we call “mouse”. Engelbart developed the first mouse prototype using wood, a circuitboard and metal wheels. In 1967, he filed a patent for the device, which was approved in 1970.
Sadly for Engelbart, the patent belonged to the Stanford Research Institute, so all the proceeds went to the institution. The global wireless mouse market size was valued at $1.38 billion in 2018 and is expected to expand further at a rate of 3.7% by 2025.