Unlucky Inventors Who Never Got to Cash in On Their Creations

Some inventors don't make any money at all from their inventions. Let's find out about unlucky inventors who didn't make any money from their inventions.


If you come up with a million-dollar idea, you might assume it to be yours forever, to cash in as you see fit. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it works. As many have found throughout history, successfully crafting an idea is only a fraction of the battle.

The following inventors were pioneers of their time, developing inventions that are still in use today. Luck, however, wasn’t on their side. Either through their own unawareness and inaction or the ill will of outside parties, these unlucky inventors missed out on cashing-in big time.

10. Shane Chen

Shane Chen’s story is one of immorality and, as he describes it, a broken patent system. The Beijing native developed the two-wheeled self-balancing scooter known as the “hoverboard,” for which his patent was approved in 2014.

Originally, the $1,000 selling price was a deterrent for general consumers, but Chen wasn’t willing to use cheaper materials at the risk of making the hoverboard unsafe. That, however, didn’t stop others from taking the steps Chen avoided.

Unlucky Inventors Shane Chen hoverboard

The original inventor of the hoverboard may have only produced several thousand, but there’s now a market of more than a million thanks to over 11,000 independent factories in China.

Despite patents filed by Chen, Chinese companies have started churning out cheap knockoffs. Just as Chen suspected, the cheaper models, which can retail as low as $100 to $150, were a hazard. Weaker batteries and improper connections caused fires in early models, resulting in disasters like the video below:

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According to Chen, it’s impossible to sell a safe hoverboard for less than $300. Unfortunately, this matters about as much as Chen’s patent does to Chinese manufacturers, who continue to produce cheap knock-offs regardless.

The industry is estimated to reach $1.25 billion by 2030, and yet the unfortunate inventor has been excluded from pocketing most of the fruits of his labor.

9. John Walker

Chances are your household has at least a few of them floating around, but do you know the history of the friction match? Let’s take a trip back to 1826 to the English town of Stockton-on-Tees, where we’ll find pharmacist and inventor John Walker.

While experimenting with a flammable mixture, a match doused in the concoction sparked against Walker’s hearth and caught fire. Immediately, Walker started producing “Friction Lights,” or sticks coated with sulfur and topped with sulfide of antimony, gum, and chlorate of potash.

Unlucky Inventors John Walker friction matches

Clearly, he was onto something, as British scientist Michael Faraday, known for his work on electromagnetism and electrochemistry, advised Walker to patent the design. Walker, however, refused, under the belief that it should be free for anyone to produce. That didn’t stop Samuel Jones, the inventor of a copycat match known as “Lucifers”, and Charles Sauria, inventor of the phosphorus-based match, from profiting from Walker’s concept.

Unlucky Inventors Who Never Got to Cash in On Their Creations

Walker may have initially sold around 250 friction matches out of his pharmacy, but once reproductions hit the market, he saw no further profits. Assuming, on average, each person on the planet gets through a $1 matchbox of 42 matches annually, that would mean that over 300 billion matches are used each year.

The industry Walker and his descendants missed out on, by these figures, would rake in more than $7 billion a year.

8. Alexey Pajitnov

Alexey Pajitnov is known for being the mind behind the phenomenally-popular videogame, Tetris. But recognition doesn’t change the fact that he missed out on a huge sum of money at the peak of Tetris mania.

Unlucky Inventors Alexey Pajitnov Tetris

It all started in 1984, as part of Pajitnov’s research into artificial intelligence at the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the Computer Center in Moscow, Soviet Russia. Pajitnov came up with an entertaining way to test new hardware capabilities using an adapted version of the math game ‘pentominoes’.

It involves fitting together shapes constructed of 5 squares. Reducing the number of squares in each shape from 5 to 4 to prevent too much complication, and hence changing the shapes from pentominoes to tetrominoes, Pajitnov created a simple yet addictive game.

Unlucky Inventors Who Never Got to Cash in On Their Creations

Pajitnov displayed his new game to colleagues and found it to be a surprising hit. With the help of Vladimir Pokhilko, he created a finished product, combined the words “tetromino” and “tennis” to form Tetris, and released it into the world.

Unfortunately, seeing as Tetris came about on state-owned equipment, the Soviet regime kept him from patenting and mass-publishing the game under his own name for 10 years. Pajitnov watched as his creation crossed the Atlantic and became a hit in the United States.

When Nintendo purchased licensing rights for around $40 million, Pajitnov didn’t see a penny. It wasn’t until 1996, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that rights reverted to Pajitnov. But he would never collect the profits made during those peak years.

7. Daisuke Inoue

In 1979, Daisuke Inoue and the band he played drums for started attracting attention with music that was easy to sing along with. Eventually, Inoue was requested to play drums for the president of a small steel company during a business trip.

Though the young drummer couldn’t attend, he gave the businessman a tape of accompaniment music for him and his colleagues to enjoy singing along to. From there, Inoue saw the potential for a machine that could play instrumental versions of popular songs for people of all abilities to sing along to.

In 1971, he and several friends connected eight-track tape players to amplifiers and leased several of the machines to bars.

Daisuke Inoue

It was from these machines that the basic idea of karaoke, meaning ‘empty orchestra’, emerged. It was a popular idea that Inoue failed to patent, allowing Filipino Robert del Rosario to sneak in with his own patent in 1975 for the Sing-Along System.

Inoue made no profits off of his original idea but, in 2004, was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize – a parody of the Nobel Prize awarded for unusual achievements in science – for being the pioneer that brought the karaoke machine to life.

Unlucky Inventors Daisuke Inoue karaoke

Whenever you find yourself butchering “Grease Lightning” on Karaoke Night, be sure to dedicate it to Daisuke Inoue. Without him, the $435 million karaoke bar industry simply wouldn’t exist!

6. Walter Hunt

Sometimes having a conscience can cost you millions. Just ask Walter Hunt, the original inventor of the sewing machine. In 1833, Hunt designed the first sewing machine that didn’t mimic a hand stitch and provided a more durable and faster method of sewing. Fearing that it would put seamstresses out of work, Hunt didn’t patent his idea.

Unlucky Inventors Walter Hunt sewing machine

That changed when Elias Howe Jr. submitted his own patent for improvements made to Hunt’s machine. The 1846 patent came under question when attorneys dug up evidence of Hunt’s earlier model.

In 1853, the original inventor submitted an application to patent the 1833 design. Though the Patent Office recognized Hunt’s design as the original, Howe’s patent remained in effect for being filed first.

Unlucky Inventors sewing machine Walter Hunt

While Hunt and Howe were dealing with their machines and patents, Isaac Merritt Singer snuck in with a machine that incorporated elements from both designs. Despite a patent infringement suit filed and won by Howe against Singer in 1854, Singer became and remains a dominant name in the industry.

The sewing machine industry recently passed $5 billion in value. Neither Walter Hunt nor the seamstresses he was concerned about, ever got to experience any of that crazy wealth.

5. Elisha Gray

Alexander Graham Bell is commonly attributed as the inventor of the telephone; but what about Ohio inventor Elisha Gray? A terrible stroke of luck is the reason that Gray isn’t the household name that Graham Bell turned out to be.

Gray, a co-founder of Western Electric Company, had been secretly working on an invention that could transmit voices through a liquid medium.

Unlucky Inventors Elisha Gray telephone

On February 11, 1876, he requested his patent lawyer, William Baldwin, to file a provisional patent application, or caveat. Three days later, Baldwin submitted the caveat to the U.S. Patent Office. Unfortunately, another patent application for the same concept was filed mere hours before Gray’s caveat.

The owner of that caveat? You guessed it - Alexander Graham Bell. Gray claimed that his lawyers reached the office before Bell’s, but Bell ultimately retained the patent.

Unlucky Inventors Elisha Gray telephone

Amid Bell and Gray’s squabble, there was also a lesser-known third party in the background. Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci, an Italian inventor, was said to have wanted to file a caveat for a talking telegraph in 1871 but was unable to afford it. Poor guy, but at least he didn’t live long enough to see that the phone industry is predicted to be worth $520.7 billion by 2030.

4. Douglas Engelbart

Engineer Douglas Engelbart is far from unlucky when it comes to his many successes. He’s one of the pioneers of the hyperlink and developed the early stages of graphical user interfaces, but there’s one invention that he was never able to cash in on.

Unlucky Inventors Douglas Engelbart computer mouse
Author Unknown

In 1963, while at a conference for computer graphics in Reno, Nevada, Engelbart conceptualized a device that moved along X-Y coordinates on a computer; the first-ever computer mouse.

The original design used two wheels that moved at right angles to control the movement of an on-screen cursor.

Unlucky Inventors Douglas Engelbart computer mouse

Joined by Bill English at the Augmentation Research Center of Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart developed the first mouse prototype out of wood, a circuit board, and metal wheels. Engelbart filed for a patent on the design in 1967, which came through three years later.

Unfortunately, the patent technically belonged to the institute, so he never saw any money from the device, even after Stanford Research Institute licensed it to Apple Computers for approximately $40,000. Today, the value of the computer mouse industry is on its way to exceeding $1 billion.

3. Heinrich Goebel

Thomas Edison receives plenty of criticism for stealing other inventors’ ideas. In many cases, like that of the lightbulb, that criticism is well-founded. Edison may have profited off the light bulb, but the development of the modern bulb can be traced back to Heinrich Goebel in 1854.

Using a carbonized bamboo filament in a vacuum bottle, Goebel was able to patent his product and approached Thomas Edison in 1882 hoping to sell the patent and design for several thousand dollars.

Unlucky Inventors Who Never Got to Cash in On Their Creations

But Edison declined, claiming he saw no merit in the invention. However, after Goebel passed away in 1893, Edison quickly purchased the patent from Goebel’s widow, for a lower price than Goebel had asked for.

With the patent secured, Edison sparked an industry that now brings in more than $1 billion a year. Edison’s sly tactics helped secure his place as one of the most famous inventors of all time.

Unlucky Inventors Heinrich Goebel light bulb

2. Charles Francis Jenkins

Thomas Edison would likely want you to believe the concept of the projector was his idea, but, like the light bulb, that simply isn’t the case. The history of the movie projector can be traced to Charles Francis Jenkins who, with the financial backing of Thomas Armat, developed the Phantoscope in the 1890s.

Unlucky Inventors Charles Francis Jenkins projector concept

While Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, in development around the same time, produced blurry moving images inside a container, Jenkins’ early-model film projector was the first of its kind to allow smooth, clear projection of moving images.

Unlucky Inventors Who Never Got to Cash in On Their Creations

Following the construction of a prototype of the Phantoscope, Jenkins and Armat became locked in a lengthy feud over the patent, for which Jenkins claimed he was the sole inventor. The patent was eventually filed with Armat’s name included.

Jenkins was awarded a cash settlement of $2,500 for the rights to the Phantoscope. Armat, in turn, sold the rights to none other than Thomas Edison, who would re-brand the invention as the Vitascope.

Unlucky Inventors Charles Francis Jenkins projector concept

Jenkins eventually received the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal for scientific achievement from the Franklin Institute and Science Museum; a decent consolation prize, but it doesn’t match the profits from what would become one of the most lucrative industries in the world.

Even in 1920, the cinema industry was already turning over $500 million a year. That’s $5.5 billion today, adjusted for inflation. Needless to say, Thomas Edison became a very wealthy man.

1. Catherine Hettinger

Catherine Hettinger, an American engineer responsible for creating what is perceived to be the predecessor of the fidget spinner, narrowly missed out on one of the most insanely-popular trends in toy history.

The original design, which Hettinger developed in 1990, was a simple disk that spins on one finger. Hettinger originally designed it for her daughter but saw the potential when locals at arts and crafts fairs ate it up.

Unlucky Inventors Catherine Hettinger fidget spinner

She was awarded her patent in 1997 but had a hard time selling the idea. Hasbro even turned her down, not yet seeing the potential. For 18 years, Hettinger’s spinner remained on the sideline. When her patent expired in 2005, she was unable to pay the $400 renewal fee.

Fast forward to 2017, and fidget spinners were dubbed a “national phenomenon” by USA Today. The new wave of fidget spinners are a little more complex than Hettinger’s original design, but the concept of a rotating hand toy is remarkably similar.

Unlucky Inventors Who Never Got to Cash in On Their Creations

Although she would never see any profits, many outlets label Hettinger as the creator of the fad. Though Hettinger states that she isn’t bothered, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that she narrowly missed out on a $500 million industry.

These unlucky inventors who never got to cash in on their creations can at least get some credit for their inventions now. Thanks for reading.

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