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11 Geniuses Who Never Made Money Off Their Inventions

Geniuses Inventions
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Many geniuses out there made money from their innovative and world-changing inventions. However, imagine if you had created something that is being used by millions, if not billions of people across the globe, but you don’t see a dime for your efforts. That is the incredible story of the inventors on this list.

Whether through patriotism, a desire to selflessly change the world or just because they forgot to take a walk down to the patent office, these 11 inventors and their amazing creations, did in fact, change the world for the better. It’s just that despite being geniuses, their incredible inventions didn’t improve their respective bank balances.

Geniuses Inventions
Author unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Nick Holonyak Jr

American engineer and educator Nick Holonyak Jr is credited with developing the first practical visible-spectrum LED, now commonly used in light bulbs, device displays, and lasers worldwide. While working at General Electric on Oct. 9, 1962, Holonyak demonstrated the first visible-light-emitting diode.

Although many believed Holonyak should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for his work, he took a more humble stance by saying, “It’s ridiculous to think that somebody owes you something. We’re lucky to be alive when it comes down to it.” If he had patented his invention and collected royalties on every LED bulb sold, the 93-year-old would be richer than King Midas!

Geniuses Inventions
Image By Andrey 69 From Shutterstock

2. Mikhail Kalashnikov

Born in Kurya, Altai Krai, Russian SFSR in 1919, Mikhail Kalashnikov was drafted into the Red Army during the late ’30s. Due to his considerable (and according to him, self-taught) engineering skills, he was assigned as a tank mechanic and later became a tank commander. It’s here where he created his first inventions.

After being wounded in combat in the Battle of Bryansk in October 1941 and hospitalized until April 1942, he overheard soldiers complaining about the poor quality of their rifles. Kalashnikov took upon himself to invent something more sturdy and reliable, and so the iconic AK-47 assault rifle was born. Although the weapon’s official manufacturer did patent the design in the 1990s, Kalashnikov never did. When asked why he didn’t profit from his invention, he replied that he created it for the good of his country.

Geniuses Inventions
Image By drserg From Shutterstock

3. Sir Tim Berners-Lee

When it comes to world-changing inventions, there is nothing more significant than the invention of the World Wide Web. You wouldn’t be reading this article if it hadn’t! Although officially, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (also known as CERN) built the first website in 1991, it was based on computer scientist Berners-Lee’s ideas while working there in the late 1980s.

Just as the World Wide Web changed the lives of billions, Berners-Lee’s life could have also changed drastically as he could now have the equivalent in cash, if not trillions! That would be the case if he decided to patent his idea, but he did not because he firmly believed that his invention should be freely available to all.

Geniuses Inventions
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4. Daisuke Inoue

After realizing that he was less than an accomplished drummer, Daisuke Inoue took over his band’s business management, providing backup music in a club for businessmen who wanted to take the stage. One day, when he was asked to attend a business trip with a client needing backup, Inoue instead supplied the businessman with taped accompaniment. This idea would grow into what we know as Karaoke today.

So, in 1971 Inoue would invent the first (this would later be debated) Karaoke machine and change drunken nights out forever. Although he never patented his design, he is widely recognized to this day as he was named one of Time magazine’s “Most Influential Asians of the Century” in 1999 and awarded an Ig Nobel prize, a satiric prize awarded annually for unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research, in 2005.

Geniuses Inventions
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5. John Walker

This English chemist would help illuminate the world one tiny splinter of wood at a time by being the first person to invent the first friction match in 1826. As his ledger would show, on 12th April 1827, he started selling cardboard matches packaged in boxes with sandpaper strike pads from his pharmacy in Stockton on Tees. However, he didn’t patent his invention.

Walker may have failed to patent this world-changing invention he called “Friction Light,” so, unfortunately, two years later, in 1829, Samuel Jones of London would copy Walker’s idea and marketed his matches as “Lucifer’s” with the warning “Persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use the Lucifers.” Sadly, Walker was only recognized as the true inventor after his death.

Geniuses Inventions
SAS Scandinavian Airlines, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

6. Jonas Salk

Vaccines have certainly been making headlines due to the coronavirus pandemic in the last few years. The inventors of those vaccines have definitely made a tidy profit from their endeavors. However, in 1953 there would be an American virologist and medical researcher who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines, New Yorker, Jonas Salk.

When Salk accepted a professorship in the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh in 1947, by the following year, he would dedicate the next seven years to understanding the different types of poliovirus and finding a vaccine. Once the vaccine’s success was first made public in April 1955, Salk was instantly hailed as a “miracle worker.” He refused to patent his vaccine because he wanted to end polio’s global health crisis, saying, “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”.

Geniuses Inventions
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7. Ron Klein

You probably already know Ron’s work and use it every day as he would create an innovation that has directly touched the lives of billions of consumers, the Magnetic Strip Credit Card Validity Checking System. Back in the 60s, a department store client came to Ron to help solve a problem. Credit card companies provided a long list of negative account numbers sold to merchants. However, they had to refer to a huge book to determine if the customer was there.

Although Klein’s firm Ultronic Systems Corp was granted a patent for his invention in 1969, once rival companies had heard about this, they quickly stole his technology and developed their own. By the time his rivals had rolled their version out worldwide, there was little Klein’s company could do to enforce the patent.

Geniuses Inventions
Kottke_Wayne, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

8. Ronald Wayne

As the saying goes, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’, well, not if you’re Ronald Wayne. The sight of an apple must have him biting his knuckles as he ponders what might have been. Why? Imagine you were the co-founder of the largest information technology company by revenue (totaling $274.5 billion in 2020) and the world’s most valuable company, but you never saw a dime of that money.

This was the case for poor Mr. Wayne as he co-founded Apple in partnership with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in 1976 to develop and sell Wozniak’s Apple I personal computer. However, Wayne feared that the company would fail and he would be left with the financial burden of that failure. So, after only twelve days had his name taken off the contract and sold his shares back to the co-founders for $800. His 10 percent stake in Apple would be worth a staggering $95 billion today!

Geniuses Inventions
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Laszlo Biro

Although the first ballpoint pen was invented in 1888 by John J. Loud, it was not commercialized, and the patent would eventually lapse. Enter Argentine-Hungarian inventor Laszlo Biro. While working as a journalist, he noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free, so he decided to use the same ink to create a pen.

Working with his brother György, he would eventually perfect his ballpoint pen and present it at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. Unfortunately, after founding his company Biro Pens of Argentina, it would quickly fall into financial difficulties, and Biro was forced to sell the patent to Italian businessman Marcel Bich. Bich would create the BIC company, which would go on to sell more than 100 billion ballpoint pens worldwide.

Geniuses Inventions
Alex Handy from Oakland, Nmibia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

10. Douglas Engelbart

A few creative souls out there have been described as ‘way ahead of their time,’ and there is no greater example of this than with the engineer and inventor and an early computer and Internet pioneer, Douglas Engelbart. This computer pioneer filed a patent for the first mouse, which he referred to as a “position indicator for a display system,” way back in 1967.

He would promote his new invention at a technological convention known today as “The Mother of All Demos” on December 9, 1968. Sadly, there would be little interest in his ideas and funding to pursue them, so he retired in 1986. By the time his invention had gained serious commercial viability in the late 1980s, Engelbart’s patent had expired, so he never made a dime off something you’re likely scrolling and clicking with as you read this.

Geniuses Inventions
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11. Harvey Ball

Emoticons have become an everyday part of the way we communicate with each other, but the granddaddy of them all has to be the simple ‘smiley’ emoticon. Invented by Harvey Ball, a commercial artist, in 1963, the ‘smiley’ has become a key feature of texts, e-mails, tweets, and all other forms of digital communication, and one he created in just 10 minutes.

He had originally designed this simple face to improve morale after an unpopular merger between two insurance companies, State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, purchased Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio. Unfortunately for Ball, he never applied for a trademark for the iconic smiley image and only earned $45 for his efforts. Despite never making any money off his iconic design, Ball founded the World Smile Foundation in 1999, a non-profit charitable trust supporting children’s causes.

If you want to learn more about American inventors who not only got the recognition they deserved but helped build America, then click HERE


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