5 Useful Things Inventors Refused to Profit Off Of
If you invent something that is obviously about to change the world, your eyes might understandably spin into dollar signs, Looney Tunes style. You could see a future of riches for not only you but your family spanning generations, as soon as you take the design of your brand new “microwave” down to the patent office and get it legally sewn up. Your descendants are on a one-way ticket to old money status, on the backs of a million cups of instant noodles.
Those dollar-sign eyes might narrow with concern, though, if you realize that what you just invented is a little too important. To get really, really rich without going to hell, you have to thread the needle and invent something that everybody wants, but nobody needs. Otherwise, all that sweet, sweet money you make is a product of you being a cackling ghoul, gatekeeping access to essential products. Unsurprisingly, some are happy to burn rich. Some do, though, make the magnanimous choice.
Here are five inventors who refused to profit off their inventions…
Jonas Salk, the Polio Vaccine
Maybe the most famous instance of an invention being purposely kept patentless is the polio vaccine. Something that people remembered even more vividly thanks to COVID. Salk entered his thoughts on the matter into public record on the same day that the vaccine was officially given the stamp of full approval. He was interviewed by Edward R. Morrow on CBS, and when the question of patent ownership arose, he said, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
Nils Bohlin, Seatbelts
If you’ve ever shopped for a car, especially one that is going to be carrying the precious cargo of your own children, you’ve probably heard the safety of Volvo trumpeted. I mean, cars are still an unbelievably, inconceivably dangerous mode of transport, but Volvo does wear the crown in the mind of most motorists as a slightly safer option. This isn’t hurt by the fact that in 1959, a Volvo engineer named Nils Bohlin made not only Volvos, but every single car magnitudes safer for the remainder of history. Bohlin invented the modern three-point seatbelt, and though Volvo did patent the design, they made it free to the public at the same time. Something that’s probably saved the lives of someone personally known to almost everybody.
Nick Holonyak Jr., LEDs
The incandescent light bulb is practically shorthand for an incredible invention, and one that made Thomas Edison an easy answer on even the most low-stakes trivia night. Given that, it’s pretty surprising that so few people know the name of the inventor of the lightbulb-of-sorts that’s dominated the modern world: the LED, or light-emitting diode. That man is Nick Holonyak Jr., and the first useful LED was produced in 1962. As you can imagine, the royalties on something that you probably have a hundred of within arm’s reach, including behind these very words, would be astronomical. Holonyak wouldn’t know, as he never received any. The least we could do is throw him a Jeopardy! question.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web
Speaking of things that you’re staring at right now, and that have probably destroyed your sleep schedule, how about the internet itself? Which was definitely not invented by Al Gore. It has to suck to have your own invention be packed with information saying it was invented by someone else. That, however, is the unfortunate fate of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented what he aspirationally (and prophetically) called the World Wide Web while working at CERN. He chose not to license or patent his invention, making the basis of the modern internet free to use. Unsurprisingly for someone of that moral fortitude, he’s not entirely jazzed with what it’s become.
Mikhail Kalashnikov, AK-47
For our final entry, let’s take a look at something that is maybe the direct opposite of a life-saving medicine. This is one of the most recognizable and enduring weapon systems ever created, the Kalashnikov family of rifles. Mikhail Kalashnikov designed the rifle while recovering from a battle wound of his own, and gave it his own name: the Avtomat Kalashnikova, meaning “automatic weapon of Kalashnikov.” The year he cooked it up provided the second half of the name, and the AK-47 was born. The rifle and its descendants like the AKM (Automat Kalashnikova modernizerovanny, or “modernized”) have been called the “deadliest, most prevalent and most game-changing individually wielded weapon in the history of military armament.”
Despite that, having said he developed it for the defense of his nation and the good of the people, Kalashnikov never patented or made money off of the design.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.