There are good ideas and then there are great ideas. World Patent Marketing has gathered together some of the best invention ideas of the last 50 years, some of the best, Million Dollar Ideas we call them.
The first thing you will notice is that there is no "cookie cutter inventor" out there, and no single path to success. Some of our Million Dollar Ideas were born in high tech research facilities, but one of the best, the game Trivial Pursuit was truly thought up over a few beers. And it should come as no surprise that the bagless vaccuum was indeed inspired by an industrial designer who found that the standard model vaccuum didn't cut it.
We cover these invention ideas and many more. They prove that inventors come form all walks of life, but they always have a unique vision and a ton of tenacity.
Trivial Pursuit the Billion Dollar Board Game
The story goes that Scott Abott and Chris Haney had finished yet another game of Scrabble and over beers were pondering something else to do. The two Canadian friends were living in Montreal and both working at newspapers, one as a sports editor and one as a photo editor. They were both game fanatics. They had enough of Scrabble and wanted a new game. They started quizzing each other about games trivia, and came up with the idea of a trivia board game.
Within a few hours and considerably more beer, they developed the basic logic of Trivial Pursuit, complete with the circle and its colored segments. This was on December 15, 1979.
They incorporated in January of 1980 as Horn Abbott. Now these two newspapermen and game fanatics knew that they needed help. So they brought on board Chris's brother John, who was a former hockey player, and his buddy Ed Werner who was also a former hockye player, but more important at the moment, he was now a lawyer. They pooled their resources and talents, and issued shares to each member, 22% each to Haney and Abbott, while Werner and J. Haney received 18%.
Although they had their basic game design worked out after their first few beers on December 15, Haney and Abbott knew they still had a long way to go. After all, for all their love of games, they had no experience in the field of "games as business" at all. How to learn?
First off, they attended a Toy Fair in Montreal. Naturally enough given their backgrounds, they posed as reporters. Armed with the information they gathered, they got busy on the production of their game and the business model.
They needed development money. They raised $40,000 from 32 people. Haney talked his mother out of investing, because he was worried she could lose her retirement savings. Haney then took off for Spain, to reserach and write the trivia questions that were the heart of the game.
The first 1100 Trivial Pursuit Board Games were released in Canada. Horn and Abbott sold these games for $15, even though they cost $75 to make. The point was that they wanted retailers to be able to sell them for $29.95. They knew that this was a high price point at the time, and if the game was to have any longterm chance of success, it had to retail for less than $30. They expected fast sales at first, but sales were only lukewarm in the beginning.
And of course, losing $60 per game, they quickly ran out of funds.
In 1982 Trivial Pursuit had its U. S. Debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York. They hoped to have a hit, but only a few hundred games were ordered.
At this point, many of today's patent bubble inventors would have thrown in the towel. But the intrepid four couldn't do that. By this time they were so deep in debt, they had no choice but to move forward. Sales of 20,000 games would just be a break even. They needed a hit.
Fortunately, one came along. The stores that had ordered Trivial Pursuit found that it quickly sold out and they placed reorders. This was a great sign. Armed with steadily increasing sales, they contracted with Cheiftain Products LLC for manufacturing and distribution in Canada, and Selchow and Righter for the U.S.
With real company backing and an innovative PR campaign from the Selchow and Righter team, Trivial Pursuit took off. Within one year, 1983, 2.3 million games had been sold in Canada and 1 million in the United States. 1984, the following year, sales exceeded 1 billion dollars.
Haney, Haney, Abbott and Werner had an "overnight" success with Trivial Pursuit. But now you know that it was actually 4 years of hard work and dedication. Trivial Pursuit is now in the Games Hall of Fame, and over a billion have been sold worlwide in 26 countries and 17 languages.
The Club was a Million Dollar Marketing Idea
Some of us at World Patent Marketing are even too young to remember but If you are of a certain age (in other words, a gray hair or two) you almost certainly remember The Club. The in-your-face television ads were everywhere, you couldn't get away from them. And boy were they effective, to the tune of millions of dollars. Which is pretty good for a device that isn't actually "new" and was far from fool-proof.
The Club was an anti-theft device for cars that attached to the steering wheel and locked it in place. The inventor/promoter James Earl "Jim" Winner was fond of saying that "if you can't drive it, you can't steal it." The Club made it impossible to steer, you couldn't drive the car away while it was in place.
Those ads may have been annoying, but they did the trick bigtime. Over ten years, 14 million of the anti-theft devices were sold, making Winner a multi-millionaire. Winner was an invention marketing genius.
It wasn't bad for a man who liked to say that "no one in the room was raised poorer than me." As a kid he grew up on a dairy farm in Transfer, Pennsylvania and went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. He served in the U.S. Army in South Korea and then attended Shenango Valley Business College. After that he worked as a salesman, taking a stint with chemicals, pianos, and even vacuum cleaners.
He came up with the idea for The Club after his Cadillac was stolen. To prevent thefts of jeeps when he was in the army, he had chained the steering wheels. He got together with mechanic Charles Johnson to design a device consisting of a "club" that could be locked in place, with hooks that prevented the wheel from turning. As an aside, Winner didn't pay the mechanic as promised and Charles Johnson later sued Winner in 1993, claiming that they had a verbal agreement to split the profits for The Club. Johnson won $10.5 million.
In any case, to launch his new invention, Winner created a company to sell The Club and developed a huge television promotion campaign. The Club was an immediate success, sold in national retailers like WalMart, Sears, and KMart. It was also noted that The Club wasn't all that original, plenty of other similar devices existed. Also, The Club didn't really prevent cars from being stolen, it just made it harder. The lock on The Club could be picked, or the steering wheel could be cut in order to drive the car. But, as is well known, thieves pick the easy targets. The highly visible Club encouraged theives to move along.
With the success of The Club, Winner was able to involve himself in civic life and philanthropy in his hometown of Sharon, Pennsylvania. He worked to promote tourism in the area and also supported the charity "Shoe the Children," inspired by the poverty he had known growing up.
5,000 Prototypes to Perfect Million Dollar Idea
That's right, it took Sir James Dyson more than 5,000 invention prototypes to perfect his bagless cyclonic vacuum. Talk about determination...
Dyson was an engineer who had studied art and design at the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom. It took him five years, and those 5,000 prototypes, to get his invention right, and another five years to get it off the ground. All the while, his devoted wife supported them on her salary as an art teacher.
Was it worth it? According to the Sunday Times of London, Dyson has a net worth of five billion pounds, that's about seven and a half billion dollars. Plus, he also has a Knighthood awarded by the Queen, making him Sir James, and a host of other engineering and philanthropic awards.
As is so often the case, the idea for the Dyson vacuum, which was revolutionary, came from every day experience. At the time Dyson came up with his idea, vacuums had filter bags that trapped the dust and dirt. Dyson's complaint with the device was that as the bag filled with dust, the suction was drastically reduced. The vacuum barely worked at all when the bag was close to full.
He set out to build a vacuum cleaner that didn't use bags. It used cyclonic motion of the air, to separate the dust and debris. Not surprisingly, the vacuum bag industry was not pleased. This industry was worth 100 million pounds every year in the U.K. alone.
He launched what he called the "G-Force Cleaner" at a fair in the U.K. in 1983. But, none of the major companies would touch it, because they didn't want to upset their 100 million pound bag market. So he sold it through catalog sales in Japan, for approximately $3,000 per unit. In 1991 the G-Force won first prize at the International Design Fair in Japan.
In 1993, having failed to attract the attention of the major manufacturers, he opened Dyson Ltd, in England. He opened his own manufacturing plant and launched a television campaign that was a breakthrough. Instead of emphasizing the power of the vacuum as he had done in the past to appease the "bag" manufacturers, this time he emphasized that it never needed bags that had to be replaced.
It was a HUGE hit. The Dyson vacuum revolutionized the industry. It has been copied by the major manufacturers, of course, and it has made Dyson fabulously wealthy.
He continues to invent even today. He has several inventions on the market, including a revolutionary hand dryer and a wheelbarrow that uses a ball instead of a wheel, for superior maneuverability. But, he will always be most famous for freeing the world from nasty dirty vacuum cleaner bags.
The Mayor of Silicon Valley
Robert Noyce wasn't the actual mayor, it was his nickname because he founded two of the most powerful companies to arise from Silcon Valley, Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957 and Intel in 1968. Without the work of Noyce and his colleagues, the computer age would not exist.
Noyce always had the bug for invention. When he was just 12, he and his brother built a kid-sized aircraft that they would fly from the roof of the local stables. He also built a radio from scratch. And he welded an old washing machine motor and a prop to the back of sled for a motorized sled.
He was always adventurous and outdoorsy, reading Hemingway, flying planes, and participating in scuba and hang gliding. He almost didn't graduate from college, because one night with his college buddies he stole a baby pig, that he and his friends then had for a cook out. In Iowa, stealing livestock is a serious offense, even if one baby pig didn't count for much on the monetary scale.
But, his professors came to his defense. He was brilliant and they didn't want to lose him. A deal was worked out with the farmer, he was quietly suspended for a semester, and that was the end of it.
Noyce eventually completed graduate school at MIT. He soon went to work at the famous Shockley Labs in California, where the most advanced research into semiconductors was being done. William Shockley was a brilliant researcher, but also notorious for being rude to employees and impossible to work with. As Shockley grew older, his notable scientific and engineering achievements were overshadowed with his support of eugenics programs and his negative behavior traits that left him estranged from friends and family at the time of his death.
It was Shockley's disparaging and degrading behavior that actually led to the founding of Fairchild Semiconductors. Fed up with Shockley's bad management, Noyce and seven other high level employees walked out in 1957 and founded their own company, Fairchild. They were called the Traitorous Eight, and they went on to found the new high tech invention company that soon eclipsed Shockley's laboratory.
In 1968, Noyce left Fairchild Semiconductors to found Intel. Noyce was regarded as the visionary of the company that created the micorprocessor. Noyce is regarded as one of the most important figures in the computer revolution. At the time of his death he was worth $3.7 billion.
The Transistor Radio, the Start of the Mobile Gadget Revolution
Back in 1954, when the first portable radio hit the market, it delighted the transistor industry. While the transistor was regarded as a scientific breakthrough that had unleashed a flurry of patents and development, there was almost no work being done on the applications for transistors. Texas Instruments was distressed, here they had a great no toy, and nobody was doing anything with it.
Then along came Richard Koch, who took out a patent for a portable radio that could fit in a pocket, the Regency T1. It was launched in October of 1954, to much fanfare. It didn't have great sound, but it was a brekathrough. Although, at $49.95, it was hardly going to be a mass market item.
Koch and John Pies, of Regency, the maker of the radio, set out to solve the problem and bring costs down. The problem was that at the time, transistors had to be hand-tuned when they were installed. It made it impossible for cheap mass production of items that used transistors, since advanced technicians had to be involved in the assembly.
Richard Koch solved the problem, inventing a system that allowed the transistors to be dropped into circuit boards in assemblyline fashion. He took out an invention patent for the process and the consumer gadget market was born.
Popular Toy, Etch a Sketch, Invented by a Baker's Son Who Was Allerrgic to Flour
Etch a Sketch is an iconic toy that has been a perennial favorite since its launch in 1960. Fads come and go, but the Etch a Sketch continues to show up under Christmas trees and in birthday packages year after year. Millions of them have been sold over the years.
But, it almost didn't happen. The inventor, Andres Cassagnes was born outside of Paris, France. His family owned a bakery and at that time one was expected to enter the family business. But, Cassagnes was allergic to flour so he had to change course.
He became an electrician. While working for a company that made picture frames using aluminum powder, he noticed how the powder stuck to or was repelled on film. He played with the idea and evntually came up with the L'Ecran Magique, known in America as the Etch a Sketch. He partnered with the Ohio Art Company, which manufactured and distributed the toy in the United States. It was launched in the U.S. in 1960.
As famous as his toy was, Cassagnes was actually best known for working with kites. He built modular kites and sold them throughout the 1980s. He was regarded as the most famous Kitemaker in France, his success with the Etch a Sketch being something of a sidenote in his home country.
Pong Ushers in the Age of Video Games
Pong was the rage back when. It was the first big hit of the digital screen arcade games. It led to the founding of the company Atari and a personal fortune in the tens of millions for its inventor Nolan Bushnell.
Bushnell took a degree in electrical engineering in 1968 from Utah State University. While there, he and his pals liked to play the game Spacewar! on the mainframe computers. At the same time, Bushnell had worked at the Lagoon Amusement Park for spending money. He became fascinated with the midway arcade games.
It's no surprise that upon leaving college, he decided to combine his love of games and amusement parks. He and his colleagues founded Atari to release an arcade game that had the feel of their beloved Spacewar! The result was Pong, an incredibly simple digital tennis game. To finance the development, he worked for a company that had a number of arcades and pinball machines, running a route collecting the money from the machines and servicing them.
Pong was a huge hit, and the first of its kind. Bushnell also branched out into the entertainment industry founding Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza, which of course featured the Atari arcade games.
Bushnell was featured in the film, Something Ventured as well as the film Atari: Game Over.
VOIP Was a 500 Million Dollar Invention Idea!
Voice Over Internet Protocol is the backbone of services like Skype. Alon Cohen was one of the founders of the industry with his inventions for an audio transceiver. He was a co-founder of the early VOIP company VocalTec Inc., and holds 5 patents for communications technologies, with co-authorship of many more.
His wife, who is his business partner in their new startup, Houzz, which provides DIY design services for remodeling, points out that unlike most of the Silicon Valley players, Cohen is a normal middle class guy from an average family. They were smart and did well in college, but they were far from the elite. Cohen attended Tel Aviv University and graduated Magna Cum Laude.
"The Marker" an Israeli business magazine, named Cohen one of the 100 most influential Israelis. He served as the official representative from Israel at the United Nations ITU Study Group 16 on VOIP. He now lives in New Jersey and his net worth is estimated at $500 million.