Inventors Who Lost the Race to the Patent Office

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Had Elisha Gray only chosen a faster horse, many of us today might be paying our phone bills to the Gray Company instead of Pacific Bell. And had Jacob Davis been only a little wealthier, it could have been his name sewn onto the pockets of America's favorite jeans rather than that of his financier, Levi Strauss.

It's an old and familiar story: The inventors with the brightest ideas somehow wind up with nothing. Why? Because they signed away the rights to their invention before realizing its true value. Or worse, they knew the value of their invention but lost in their race to the patent office—in some cases by just a few days or even hours. Take for example, the most famous of all patent races.

Great Minds Think Alike

On February 14, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell applied for a patent on an apparatus that could transmit speech electrically, beating out his rival, Elisha Gray, by just two hours. Never mind that Gray's design worked better. Timing was all that mattered. When Gray later filed a lawsuit, the courts awarded the patent to Bell, who went down in history as the official inventor of the telephone.

It's All in the Jeans

As many inventors know, a good idea is nothing if you can't prove you own it. Take the case of Jacob Davis, the Nevada tailor who invented an early prototype for blue jeans. His novel idea was to place metal rivets on his jeans (at each point of strain) to increase their durability. Davis was sure this small but significant innovation would sew up the pants market. Unfortunately, he didn't have the money to file for a patent so Davis persuaded Levi Strauss, the owner of a San Francisco dry goods store, to pay for the patent application. The patent was granted in 1873, but today Jacob Davis is a mere footnote in the story of America's favorite fashion staple.

A Truly Bright Idea

For every inventor who lost out in the patent race, there are two more who sold their ideas a little too soon. Take Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans, early inventors of the light bulb. In 1875 they sold their "bright idea" to Thomas Edison who refined their design and premiered it to a delighted public four years later. The fame and fortune Edison acquired from the light bulb grew into the Edison General Electric Company, which eventually evolved into General Electric.

Not So Silly Putty

Ironically, General Electric later sold itself short on one hugely profitable patent, proving that even corporate giants sometimes have trouble seeing the big picture. In 1949, General Electric sold the production rights for "Nutty Putty" to Peter Hodgson for $147. The original inventor was James Wright of General Electric Labs who was working on a government contract to create a substitute for synthetic rubber. Wright dropped boric acid into silicone oil and found the resulting putty would stretch, bounce, and copy print. GE shared this putty with scientists worldwide, but none could see any greater potential. Peter Hodgson was unemployed when he bought the putty rights. Hodgson promptly renamed his purchase "Silly Putty" and marketed it as a children's toy. He died in 1976 with an estate worth $140 million.

Working Out the Kinks in the System

Of course, not all inventors lose out because of poor timing, shortsightedness or poverty. Sometimes the Patent process itself is to blame. Eli Whitney'scotton gin was one of the first inventions to be patented under the new U.S. patent system. This meant his invention was also one of the first to test the new patent laws. Whitney filed his patent in 1794, but unfortunately it wasn't upheld until 1807, during which time a flood of imitation cotton gins hit the market. The state of South Carolina finally offered Whitney $50,000 for the patent rights to his cotton gin.

So What's a Modern Inventor to Do?

If you have bright idea—even one without obvious commercial value—don't wait for someone else to figure it out and cash in first. The United States Government offers a new, low-cost solution for inventors called a Provisional Patent Application, or PPA.

So what does a PPA do exactly? A Provisional Patent Application secures an immediate priority filing date for your invention. In other words, it allows you to go on record as the first person to officially lay claim to your invention. Securing a priority filing date is critical because as far as the government is concerned, it's not who came up with the idea first that matters; it's who secured the rights.

Apart from speed, the main advantage of filing a PPA is that it's easier and a lot cheaper to file than a full patent application. This doesn't mean, however, you can get out of filing a standard patent application altogether. A PPA simply buys you an additional 12 months to get the materials and funds together to file a full patent. Think of it as a legal placeholder. A PPA makes sure no one else rushes in and claims your invention while you're busy fine-tuning your design, securing funds, or testing your idea's market potential. With a PPA you also have a legal right to the term, "patent pending," which can be helpful in warding off any would-be imitators.

Whether you file a PPA or full patent, take a lesson from history and protect your ideas as soon as possible. Because you never know if that little project you've been tinkering on down in the basement could turn out to be the next big thing.