Flash Of Genius

Genius_Doolhof_000004685201XSmallThe movie Flash Of Genius (2008), the story of Robert Kearns, who owned a chain of auto-part stores and invented the intermittent windshield wiper and made his life story of suing Detroit carmakers over patent infringement, did not make it to European film houses. It did not even got attention in Europe as far as we can see.

The movie is one of those rare occasions when Hollywood and intellectual property meet. It shows us historic tales of great inventors who did not get an easy income under their invention. In that respect the story reminds of other famous examples in history of inventors who finally were able to make their inventions a (financial) success only after meeting the right people, fighting epic battles in court before receiving recognition and more importantly, rewards from their inventions.

As history shows, a great innovation leading to a useful patent in itself does not always do the job. One of the best examples is the story of Eli Whitney and some of his best known innovations: the cotton gin. He came to his invention basically by accident. He was invited to become a tutor for a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner. On his arrival in Savannah, he was casually confronted with a major problem of that period.

The green cotton they were raising had short strands with seeds firmly attached to the fiber. The fiber was valuable but only without the seeds. All plantation owners and major cotton producers faced a major, insolvable problem. The cotton plant was easy to grow and easy to harvest but the fiber was difficult to separate from the seeds. Whitney – who had never seen cotton in his life – was captivated by the land owners request to try to come with something innovative. Whitney eventually came with what is known as a “gin”. The gin was easy to make and caused the southern agricultural states to see its fortune changing overnight to become one of the richest areas in the whole country.

Whitney got his patent in 1794. What Whitney and his former host and now commercial benefactor, Miller, did not realize at the time was that smart licensing of a good invention brings a lot more gain than trying to own all the cotton gins, something that is very familiar in our times, but then again we have learned the advantages of an “open innovation”. Whitney and Miller’s charged high prices for anyone who wanted to use the invention. Because of the too high a price, competing cottoners copied Whitney’s product. Whitney found out the hard way that those who invent something valuable are destined to a life in court, particularly when the patent laws are weak and vague. Whitney had to fight in court to get his patent validated, which led him to say: “An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor”. He found out the hard way that marketing and licensing the patent is as valuable to an invention as the invention itself.

Another lesson to be learned from history is that a successful innovation needs a fertile corporate environment and vision by business people who believe in the invention to make it a success. Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent that recognized him as the sole inventor of the telephone, US patent no. 174,465, eventually became known as “the single most valuable patent ever issued in the history of the world”. What is lesser known is that Bell brought his invention to Gardiner G. Hubbard, a prominent Boston attorney and entrepreneur. Hubbard helped Bell in finding practical business and political advice, understood wire communications and what it meant politically at that time.  Hubbard got what Bell did not have to build the greatest telecommunications monopoly of its time: money, political connections, and above all business experience. Even after Bell was awarded his patent, few people immediately recognized its potential.

Hubbard also gave Bell the opportunity to show his telephone on a major exhibition, the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  Bell allowed Hubbard to make the appropriate arrangements for ownership of the patent and creation of a new company to develop it. Hubbard organized a trust that issued 5,000 shares of stock. Bell shared the stock with Thomas Watson, his assistant, Hubbard, and Thomas Sanders, another key figure making his invention to become a business success, the Bell Telephone Company.

So much for history.

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