Peter M Roberts (1945 – present)
Here’s a cautionary tale about employee suggestion schemes and involves socket wrenches and the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Peter M Roberts. Socket wrenches have been around since medieval times and were used, for example, to wind up clocks. The first ratcheting socket wrench with interchangeable sockets was invented by an American, J.J Richardson, who filed a patent for his tool on 16th June 1863. Although immensely useful, interchangeable socket wrenches were cumbersome as the operative had to stop what they were doing and use both hands to change the socket.
Roberts’ light bulb moment was to make the operation much slicker by developing a simple, quick-release device which allowed the user to change sockets quickly and easily with one hand. He even developed a prototype. At this time the 18 year-old Roberts worked for the retail chain store, Sears, in Gardner, Massachusetts but all the development was done in his own time, not his employers’. So pleased was Roberts with what he had produced that he was about to hire a lawyer and file a patent when he made a fatal mistake. He mentioned what he had done to his boss.
The boss, in what was possibly the worst piece of mentoring advice in modern history, suggested that Roberts enter his invention into the employee suggestion scheme. After all, Sears were selling around a million wrenches a year and would be bound to be interested. This Roberts did on 7th May 1964 with a note stating that a patent application was pending. He made the even more calamitous mistake of surrendering the only prototype in existence.
Having received this gift horse, Sears proceeded to put the device through a number of tests and received the thumbs up from wrench operatives. By this time Sears had closed the store Roberts was working at in Gardner and as he was out of work he went back to Tennessee to live with his parents. They gave him $10,000 for the patent, claiming that there was no commercial value in the device. Market research, however, had convinced Sears that they were on to a winner and the product was launched in October 1964. Within a year Sears had sold 26 million of the wrenches, trousering a profit of some $44 million. By 1982 they had sold some 37 million. The only contact Roberts had from Sears during this time was a phone call asking for the identity of his patent lawyer, whom they promptly hired to protect their interests!
Realising the enormity of his mistake, Roberts started to bombard Sears with law suits claiming that they had defrauded him. The path to justice is long, tortuous and expensive and it was not until 1976 that Roberts succeeded in getting a US Federal jury to agree with him and award him $1 million in damages – a paltry amount considering the success of the product but for someone on their uppers welcome indeed.
Sears were not finished with Roberts just yet and decided to appeal the decision, taking the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, although they eventually lost. But the litigation continued and Roberts was able to up the damages awarded to him to $5 million. But even then the dispute dragged on and it was not until 1989, some twenty-five years after the wrench had been invented, that the case was settled and Roberts walked away with $8.9m. This was enough for him to establish Link Tools which, surprise, surprise, manufactured quick-release ratchets, sockets and accessories.
Peter Roberts, for almost giving away all the fruits of your genius, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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