10 Great Business Ideas That Were Actually Stolen

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The recent Samsung versus Apple lawsuits show that technology and patent theft is still a contentious issue in the world of commerce. We say “still” because, throughout modern history, many money-spinning business ideas have been incorrectly credited to the wrong people.

From the steam engine to television, there have been numerous cases where an inventor’s groundbreaking technical work has been taken advantage of underhandedly. The result? The financial rewards being reaped by somebody else and the historical prestige getting piled on another’s plate.

Read on for 10 brilliant business ideas whose origins may not lie quite where you thought they did.

10. Radio – Marconi vs. Tesla

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In the 1890s, Nikola Tesla discovered that he could use his electrically charged “Tesla coils” to transmit messages over long distances by setting them to resonate at the same frequency. Tesla’s patent for this design was accepted in 1900.

At the same time, a young inventor named Marconi was working on his own device for transmitting signals over long distances; however, the Italian’s patents were repeatedly turned down due to the priority of previous inventors.

Undeterred, Marconi experimented with technologies like the Tesla Oscillator to transmit messages over long distances. Tesla initially tolerated Marconi using his work. He is quoted as having said, “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.”

Yet this changed in 1904, when the US Patent Office decided to award credit for the invention to Marconi. A furious Tesla attempted to sue the Italian, but he didn’t have enough financial resources to successfully prosecute. Moreover, the patent was not restored to Tesla until after the inventor’s death in 1943.

9. Lasers – Gordon Gould vs. Arthur Schawlow & Charles Townes/the US Patent Office

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Gordon Gould was a graduate student at Columbia University when he developed the first practical method for creating a laser. Gould’s 1957 design used two mirrors as an optical resonator to create a coherent, focused beam of light. He also coined the acronym LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).

Unfortunately, Gould wrongly believed that he needed to create a working model before he could patent the device. This resulted in him failing to stake a claim on his invention until 1959, by which time colleagues from the same laboratory had already filed patents for the laser.

Gould spent the next 30 years in legal battles with the US Patent Office and the corporations using his laser. After a long struggle, he won a victory over the companies using his technology in 1987. He was eventually issued a total of 48 patents and several million dollars in royalties.

8. The Steamboat – John Fitch vs. Robert Fulton and the Steam Boat Industry

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One of the most immediately apparent uses of the steam engine was to increase the speed of water transportation. So it was that, in 1787, on the Delaware River, ex-soldier John Fitch launched the first ever steam-powered boat, which was backed up by banks of oars on each side.

Unfortunately for Fitch, the patent he was granted in 1791 did not give him a monopoly, which left the way clear for later inventors to create similar designs. This meant that inventor Robert Fulton was able to patent a financially viable and profitable paddle steamer in 1807, without needing to pay the deceased Fitch’s estate a penny.

The legal struggles of steamboat builders were partly responsible for the Patent Act of 1790 being passed. This law laid down much more comprehensive procedures for claiming ownership of an invention in America.

7. The Telephone – Alexander Graham Bell vs. Elisha Gray

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Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both invented the telephone in 1876, but controversy still remains surrounding who succeeded first.

The two inventors were racing to create a device that could transmit intelligible sounds from place to place. On February 14, 1876, Gray submitted a patent to the US Patent Office. Yet on the same day, Bell’s lawyer submitted a full patent application with a very similar diagram.

There is evidence that a patent officer was bribed to give Bell the details of Gray’s invention and that this formed the basis of his harmonic transmitter, which he used to send the world’s first phone call.

Although Bell later took the development of the telephone in other directions for commercial use, there is strong evidence that the crucial first step was supplied to him by Gray’s work.

6. The Moving Picture – Francis Jenkins vs. Thomas Edison

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The video projector is commonly attributed to Thomas Edison, but, like many inventions, it was actually based on the work of earlier designers. Although Edison had developed a projector called the Kinetoscope, its images were blurry and hard to make out.

However, in the early 1890s, inventor Francis Jenkins developed an improved machine called the Phantoscope. This machine displayed images clearly for a short period of time.

Yet the eventual fate of the moving picture proved sketchy, and it shows just how important it is to trust and really know your business partner. Jenkins worked on the modified Phantoscope with Thomas Armat, and soon they both claimed recognition for the invention.

After the split, Armat went on to work for Thomas Edison, and from the Phantoscope they developed the “Edison Vitascope.” Perhaps, though, without the wrangling between Jenkins and Armat, the name synonymous with motion pictures would have been different.

5. Intermittent Windshield Wipers – Robert Kearns vs. Ford and Chrysler

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Incredibly, this case features a design stolen by three different companies simultaneously. In 1964, Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windscreen wiper, which cleaned the glass every few seconds rather than continuously, providing the driver with better visibility.

Kearns took his design to the “big three” automobile companies: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. All three refused to use the invention under license, yet they later began offering intermittent windscreen wipers as optional equipment in their cars.

An outraged Kearns sued Ford in 1978 and Chrysler in 1982, eventually winning almost $30 million in compensation. He said: “I don’t think the goal was the magnitude of the money. What I saw [as] my role was to defend the patent system. If I don’t go further, there really isn’t a patent system.”

4. Graphical User Interface – Apple vs. Xerox

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The graphical user interface (GUI) was essential in the creation of easy and intuitive personal computing, but the history of this breakthrough idea is murky. Xerox developed the first fully functional version in 1981, yet the technology quickly found its way to competitors Apple.

It is often said that Steve Jobs “stole” the idea for the GUI from Xerox after various visits to the company in the 1980s. This is not quite true. Xerox was provided with a healthy share of Apple stock in exchange for engineer visits.

Even so, the first Apple Macintosh did incorporate a number of the features of the Xerox PARC, and Apple did hire some of the best Xerox engineers to work on their prototype machines.

A lawsuit by Xerox against Apple was eventually thrown out of court around the same time as the Apple versus Microsoft suit, because the presiding judge felt that the complaints were inappropriate. Still, ultimately the GUI was the beginning of a business goldmine for Steve Jobs and Apple.

3. Television – Philo Farnsworth vs. Vladimir Zworykin and RCA

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Philo Taylor Farnsworth was a brilliant American inventor who claimed to have 165 patents to his name. Before he even turned 15, he had begun developing the image dissector, a piece of technology that would make modern television possible. And in 1927, at the age of 21, Farnsworth put together the first working version.

However, in 1930, Vladimir Zworykin, who was a scientist for electronics company RCA, visited Farnsworth’s lab. Zworykin had developed a similar model in 1923, but a patent was not granted until 1938, after he had made substantial alterations to the original design.

A decade-long patent battle ensued over priority of the invention, with RCA losing both the initial court case and the appeal in 1936. However, although Farnsworth won the court case, in many history books, Zworykin is still recorded as the inventor of television. While Farnsworth received royalties from RCA for his patents, he never gained the wealth or recognition that he deserved.

2. The Sewing Machine – Elias Howe vs. Isaac Singer

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The sewing machine is commonly associated with Isaac Singer and the Singer Corporation. However, inventor Elias Howe originally patented the design in 1846.

In 1849, Howe sued Isaac Singer for taking his idea, and the resulting litigation dragged on for several years. It was eventually settled by a compromise, with both parties forming a patent pool for their companies and Howe receiving royalties from future sales of his device.

Ironically, the first sewing machine came from an even earlier inventor. Walter Hunt created a sewing machine with a needle eye in 1834, but he decided not to patent it because he thought it would lead to unemployment.

1. Monopoly – Clarence B. Darrow vs. Lizzie Magie

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Monopoly has a long and checkered history. A Quaker named Lizzie Magie created the game in 1903. At the time, it was named “The Landlord’s Game,” and it was designed to teach people about the unfairness of land ownership.

Over the next 30 years, the game became popular with college students, Quakers, and socialists. The original name was eventually dropped and the board game became known as Monopoly.

In the 1930s, an unemployed heater salesman named Clarence B. Darrow saw the business potential of Monopoly and patented it. After successfully selling homemade versions of the game, he managed to sell the idea to toy company, Parker Brothers.

In an ironic twist, in the 1970s, the owners of Parker Brothers, General Mills, sued an economics professor for marketing a parody game called Anti-Monopoly. The suit was rejected on appeal when it was realized that the original game of Monopoly was, in fact, stolen.

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