Walter Hunt (1796 – 1859)
If you stop and think about it, and few of us do, the safety pin is a piece of design perfection. It is a pin with a spring mechanism and a clasp which fastens the pin to whatever it is to be attached to and prevents the user from pricking their finger. The design is so simple and effective that it is hard to envisage how it can be improved upon. It has stood the test of time and has barely changed since the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Walter Hunt, came up with the idea.
The story goes that fretting over a $15 debt, Walter was fiddling with a bit of wire. In a flash, the idea of a covered pin came to him and within a few hours, had completed his design. Although he patented the design, he sold it on for somewhere between $100 and $400, a fraction of what he could have earned from it.
And that in a nutshell is the story of Hunt’s career; he was a serial inventor but was so strapped for cash that he sold the patents on often for a modest sum, swapping uncertain future income for the certainty of immediate cash. By the early nineteenth century a vibrant secondary market for patents had emerged where companies or individuals would buy the exclusive rights to inventions. Hunt sold the rights of most of his inventions this way.
Born in Martinsburg, in upper New York state, Walter Hunt trained as a stonemason but ended up working in a local flax mill. He had an inquisitive mind and an inventive streak, he went on to become a serial inventor, and began to potter around to see if he could develop a more efficient form of flax spinner.
Naturally, Walter could and sufficiently encouraged by his model, he applied for and was granted a patent in 1826. Recognising that his machine was a game changer, he wanted to build a business around his invention, but there was one problem. He didn’t have the financial resources to bring his plans to fruition. The solution was to treat his patent as a commodity and sell it to the highest bidder. This became Walter’s modus operandi throughout his career.
And a prolific career it was too.
Among his many inventions, the list is too exhaustive for this vignette, were a coach alarm system, which allowed a coachman to warn pedestrians of oncoming horses, a nail-making machine, a ship which broke up ice, a knife sharpener, a rope-making machine, and a street sweeper. Where they were patented, Walter soon sold them on.
Another of Walter’s brainwaves was to develop a repeating rifle and cartridge system, the design of which would be used by Smith and Wesson. Naturally, Walter saw little financial reward for this innovation.
Some of Walter’s inventions were off the wall, or not, in the case of what was known as an “antipodean apparatus”. Despite its odd name, it was a pair of shoes, which allowed the wearer to walk up walls and ceilings. It went down a storm amongst circus performers. It continued to sell and be used until well into the 1930s, but despite its apparent success, Hunt was on his uppers.
In what must be an early example of inventor’s remorse, wishing that he could put the genie he had released back into the bottle, Walter made a significant breakthrough in the development of the sewing machine. In 1833, he came up with what was the first workable sewing machine. He was concerned that if the machine took off it would damage the employment prospects of seamstresses and so, true to form, sold the rights to a businessman.
The businessman struggled to manufacture the machine commercially and gave up, crucially omitting to patent the design. That seemed to be the end of the story until, in 1846, Elias Howe was awarded a patent for his sewing machine.
Howe was disputatious and launched a series of lawsuits against other sewing machine manufacturers to protect and assert his patent rights. This alerted Walter to the fact that Howe’s design was not dissimilar to the one he developed thirteen years earlier. After a legal battle, Hunt was recognised as the inventor, but the absence of a patent meant that Howe got to keep the intellectual property rights to the machine.
Now enter Isaac Singer.
His iconic sewing machine, the prototype of the machine we know today, incorporated elements from Hunt’s and Howe’s design. Howe took Singer to court for Patent Infringement. In his defence, Singer claimed that Howe had ripped off Hunt’s design. The absence of a patent on Hunt’s machine counted against Singer, who had to pay Howe substantial damages.
As a by-product of this case, Singer eventually agreed, in 1858, to pay Walter $50,000 for incorporating elements of his design in his machine but then fate intervened. Walter died of pneumonia in 1859, before he had received a cent from Singer.
That, I suppose, is the lot of the inventor and why, Walter, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone