#3. John Walker, Inventor of the Match
About 500 billion matches are used every year in the United States -- that's the kind of volume you can do when your product sets itself on fire with every use. Before the invention of self-igniting friction matches, people simply used sticks that caught on fire when you, y'know, put them near fire.
It was a bad system.
This changed when John Walker, an English chemist born in 1871, began coating sticks in a number of dangerous-sounding chemicals until he happened upon one that, when struck against a surface, erupted in flames. Other self-igniting matches had been tried before, but they were extremely impractical, by which we mean that a lot of people probably lost their eyebrows or worse using them.
And clearly, eyebrows were very important to this man.
Walker's invention caught on fire, both literally and figuratively, and we still keep matches around today, despite the fact that we've all heard of lighters.
But Then He Got Screwed
Walker, unaware of the potential of his invention, worked on these new "friction lights" for about a year, then promptly forgot about the whole thing and stopped selling them. People close to him implored Walker to patent his friction light, since he'd just revolutionized the creation of fire and all. Walker declined, believing that his invention could better benefit mankind without a patent.
Others, however, believed that Walker's invention could better benefit mankind by making them rich.
"How does fire help humanity if it doesn't allow me to buy prostitutes?"
In 1829, another inventor named Isaac Holden independently came up with an improved version of Walker's friction matches. Like Walker, Holden neglected to patent his idea ... and that's where one Samuel Jones came in. Jones, realizing that Walker and Holden had effectively created one of the most useful inventions in the history of civilization and weren't making money from it, decided to do it on their behalf, because he was nice like that.
Almost immediately, Jones patented the exact same thing and began selling it under the name "Lucifers," because fuck it -- if you're gonna be evil, you might as well go to the source. Soon other brands began offering improved versions of the same thing, all for a price, of course. It wasn't until they were all dead that Walker was credited for his invention, and Jones for being a douchebag.
"To Samuel Jones, the man who made the modern bar possible!"
#2. Stephen Foster, the Father of American Music
There are some tunes that you're just born knowing. If we somehow forced you to hum a melody right now, chances are that a great number of you would go with something like "Oh! Susanna":
Or "Camptown Races" (you know, the one that goes "doo-da, doo-da"):
Or maybe something more nostalgic, like "Old Folks at Home":
Man, can you imagine if all these songs had been written by the same guy, and that he'd been actively trying to get money from them? That dude would have been richer than Madonna and Bono combined.
Actually, all those songs and more were written by the same person, and he did try to cash in on them -- the keyword being "try."
Then "she" came around the mountain and snatched up all his royalties.
But Then He Got Screwed
In the 1800s, Stephen Foster wrote classics like "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Beautiful Dreamer" and over 200 other songs. Foster was a professional songwriter before those existed. Seriously: The profession literally did not exist before Foster trailblazed it like a motherfucker.
Not many pop stars can pull off a bow tie.
Of course, the problem with being the first in his profession was that there were no such things as "enforcing copyright" or "not screwing over songwriters" back then. Today, Foster would have earned obscene amounts of money from "Oh! Susanna" alone, but in 1848, he got exactly $100 for the rights to publish the sheet music, while the publisher made $10,000 selling his work.
Even when Foster became a minor celebrity, he continued getting nothing but pennies for every copy of his work that was sold. For his dozens of hit songs, he saw around $15,000 in royalties in his whole life. In the 1860s, he was dumped by his wife, who had probably had enough of sticking around with this dude who wrote like a rock star, and drank like a rock star, but was not rich like one. He died at the age of 37 after hitting his head on a washbasin, with around 40 cents in his pocket.
Some of which were melted down to make this statue.
His contributions can't be overstated. Not only did he create most of the conventions of popular songwriting as we know them today, but he also demonstrated the need for intellectual property laws by getting repeatedly screwed.
#1. Gary Kildall, the Father of the Operating System
Gary Kildall is one of the guys we have to thank for the fact that you don't need to be a genius to use the ultra advanced computer you are looking at right now to search for porn. Thank you, Gary.
Thank you for the porn.
In 1973, Kildall made life a lot easier for nerds everywhere when he created CP/M, a groundbreaking operating system for microcomputers (which is what they called any computer smaller than a semi truck back then). The program became the industry standard for the next decade. This guy was basically Bill Gates before Bill Gates was Bill Gates.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty
"It's cool, I'll just donate a bunch of money to charity someday when I'm all old and prune-faced."
But Then He Got Screwed
Of course, at the same time, Bill Gates was busy trying to become Bill Gates, and he eventually achieved that at Kildall's expense.
In 1980, IBM was getting ready to launch its first personal computer and needed an operating system to operate the shit out of it. They first knocked on Microsoft's door, but Microsoft wasn't really into the OS-making business at that point, so they directed the IBM suits to Gary Kildall's company. However, as nerd lore has it, Gary picked that day to go flying (he was an amateur pilot), blowing off IBM and his chance at history.
DigiBarn Computer Museum
Let he who hasn't blown off a corporate giant to go flying cast the first stone.
Accounts differ on whether Kildall met the IBM suits that day or not, but either way, the company went back to Microsoft, totally forgetting the whole "We don't make OS's here" part. Not one to miss out on an opportunity, Bill Gates turned to local programmer Tim Paterson, who had built a CP/M clone he called QDOS (for "Quick and Dirty Operating System"), bought it for a paltry 50 grand, then turned around and sold it to IBM under the name PC-DOS.
The term "user-friendly" meant something very different back then.
PC-DOS, later renamed MS-DOS, was included in every computer IBM made, and, long story short, that's why roughly 90 percent of you are using Microsoft Windows right now.
Today, Kildall's name is barely known, while Bill Gates will be a household name in the fucking 25th century. Most of Kildall's innovations ended up being credited to other people -- and he can't even defend himself, having died in 1994 after falling down in a tavern, which pretty much just seems like his luck.
Today's lesson is, if you're an inventor, wear a freaking helmet.
Karl Smallwood wrote a book (yes, a real one), which you can read all about here. If you want to read words he's written for free, feel free to follow him on Twitter. Mike Floorwalker has a website that's like ... whoa. Like, seriously, dude ... whoa.
For more people who should probably be a little more famous, check out 7 Inventors You Didn't Know You Wanted to Punch In the Face and 5 Important People Who Were Screwed Out of History Books.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Things Nobody Admits About Modern Human Sexuality.