There is no Wealthy Future of being an Inventor

Last week Douglas Engelbart died, 88 years old, the American who invented the computer mouse, or “X ,Y position indicator for a display system” as it was called in his 1970 patent. Like many other famous inventors he did not enjoy much of a material gain from his inventions. Ideating a new idea into an invention is no ticket to material wealth as history shows.

Engelbart’s patent – or actually his employer’s patent,  Stanford Research Institute (later SRI International) – was basically unnoticed for a long time, until it ended up at Apple, after some time in the possession of Xerox PARC.  “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, Steve Jobs is believed to have said, quoting Picasso, when he was accused of stealing and ripping Xerox of its mouse technology.

Later, around he would tell a journalist that “they had no clue of the value of the patent at the time”. Only very much later, when the technology turned about to be changing the computing world, was Engelbart awarded several honors  – including the National Medal of Technology, the Lemelson-M.I.T. Prize and the Turing Award. But material wealth he never experienced, not from this invention. Engelbart’s work inspired generations of scientists and was deployed by Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs to power their companies and fortunes. Yet Engelbart never shared in those riches, nor did he ever become a household name. He did not receive royalties for the mouse.

Engelbart is not the only famous inventor who died, in fame yes, but deprived from the wealth others made of their inventions:

** Nikola Tesla, known for his inventions on alternating current radio, wireless technology and neon lamps and X rays, died penniless in 1943 in the New Yorker Hotel, where he had lived for 10 years after being evicted from another hotel for not paying his bill.

** Charles Goodyear died in 1860 at the age of sixty as a poor man. He was $200,000 in debt at his death, but his family was able to pay the debt off later with the money made from his vulcanized products.

**Gary Kildall created the first operating system for personal computers–nearly a decade before Bill Gates signed his deal with IBM for MS-DOS. Gates became one of the richest men, Kildall died in a brawl, scarcely remembered outside Silicon Valley for his seminal contribution.

**Dan Bricklin created the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, in 1979. After a costly legal spat alongside partner Bob Frankston , Bricklin sold out for less than $3 million to Lotus , which created a nine-figure fortune for Mitch Kapor from its VisiCalc imitation called 1-2-3. And even that killer app didn’t make the really big bucks for its owners. The biggest spreadsheet fortune wound up again at Gates’ Microsoft’s Excel.

and many others

So, when current inventors talk about “value” of their patents, desperately looking for money reward for their invention would take lesson from their famous predecessors, maybe the concept of “value” would be taken into more realistic proportions