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Poor inventors

PEOPLE MAY applaud whoever came up with the idea of rug weaving but we rarely think of them when contemplating the artistry of a Persian rug.

Hence, it is important that inventors get paid (and well) for their creations.

It is great to have geniuses who create, but what happens after the eurekas is equally, or even more, important. How the invention is presented, marketed and sold will determine whether the inventor goes on to a life of luxury (think Bill Gates) or die in poverty (think Michelangelo).

About 90 per cent of inventors die poor, a story published in the Boston Globe in 1999 theorised. Often, it is the person who has the money to commercialise the invention, who becomes rich.

"It is difficult for inventors in Third World countries to secure the money to make their inventions commercial successes, and most times, First World resources are needed to make it happen. Hence, they must be cognisant of protecting themselves, ensuring that a percentage of sales comes to them, and that they are recognised for their original designs," said Carol Robinson, senior programmes officer at Jamaica Intellectual Property Organisation, said.

However, many famous inventors have died penniless after making other people very rich. One example is Nikola Tesla, a prolific inventor who ended up with more than 800 patents. Some of his inventions include the AC transformer, fluorescent lightbulb, neon light, car ignition system and speedometer.

Others include Michelangelo, Charles Goodyear, inventor of vulcanised rubber and inspiration for the Goodyear Tyre Company and Gridley Bryant, who invented the railway
carriage.

Most of these inventors lacked the knowledge to broker the right business deal for themselves.

After numerous experiments, in 1836 Goodyear developed a nitric acid treatment which would form the foundation for the famous vulcanising process, patented in 1844. The vulcanisation process revolutionised the rubber industry, but Goodyear was unable to profit financially from his discovery. His numerous patents were constantly infringed, and although he was able to establish his rights legally, he died a poor man.

A black man, Jan Ernst Matzeliger's invention was perhaps "the most important invention for New England." His invention was "the greatest forward step in the shoe industry," according to the church bulletin of The First Church of Christ. Yet, because of the colour of his skin, he was not mentioned in the history books until recently. In 1882, Metzeliger designed and patented a shoe-lasting device, one which he had refined to the point where it could adjust a shoe, arrange the leather over the sole, drive in the nails, and deliver the finished product -- all in one minute's time.

He did not live to see the fruits of his labour. Having sacrificed his health working exhausting hours on his invention -- eating poorly -- he caught a cold which quickly developed into tuberculosis. He died at age 37 on August 24, 1887.

Matzeliger's patent was subsequently bought by Sydney W. Winslow, who established the United Shoe Machine Company. The continued success of this business brought about a 50 per cent reduction in the price of shoes across the nation, doubled wages, and improved working conditions for millions of people dependent on the shoe industry for their livelihood.

In 1836, Janos Irinyi, an Hungarian chemist, invented a match, which was neither dangerous, nor unhealthy. He dissolved phosphorus in water and shook it in a glass foil until it became granulated. He mixed the phosphorus with lead and gumiarabicum, poured the paste-like mass into a jar, and dipped the pine sticks into the mixture and let them dry. When he tried them that evening, all of them lighted evenly. He had invented the match.

Istvan Romer, a rich Hungarian pharmacist living in Vienna, bought the invention and production rights from Irinyi, the poor student, for 60 Forint. The production of matches began, and everybody was happy throughout the world. Istvan Romer became rich off Irinyi's invention, but Irinyi himself died poor and lonely in Vertes.

­ CM

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