Friday, September 23, 2011

The Inventor You Never Knew

If I said the name "Walter Hunt" I’m betting most people would say, “Who?”

He’s the inventor no one knows, yet the inventor of many things that are still used today—or that evolved into things we use today. Then why don’t we know him?

Because he worked behind the scenes and because he made mistakes--mistakes we can learn from today…

He was born in 1796 in New York state. As a young man he lived in the textile mill town of Lowville, New York. His family worked in the mills. The entire town depended on the mills. When the mill owner wanted to lay people off because he was losing money, Hunt convinced him it wasn’t because of the workers, but because the machines were inefficient. To fix the problem, Hunt invented a better flax spinner and the workers’ jobs were saved. Bravo.  Way to go.

But then Hunt made the first of a series of mistakes.  And so our lessons begin. . .

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Good things come to those who wait. Throughout his life, Walter Hunt went for the quick gain rather than being patient and looking at the bigger picture.  After inventing his flax spinner he went to New York City and sold the patent. He got quick money up front. But by doing so he ended his chance to reap any profits from the machine over time.

LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES: As an inventor, Hunt had to try and fail, try and fail many times before he finally succeeded. That succession of steps was ingrained into his work ethic. But when it came to business, Hunt tossed aside this method. He failed at not profiting from the spinner, so you would have thought he would learn from his mistake of selling the rights. Nope.

Just a year after the spinner was invented, he witnessed the death of a little girl under the wheels of a carriage. It affected him greatly (as it certainly would.) Hunt recognized the problem at hand: coachmen had hand horns to beep, but in an emergency, they had to keep both hands on the reins. So Hunt invented a foot-activated gong. Problem identified, problem solved.

But once again he sold the patent before it was manufactured.

BIG GAINS INVOLVE BIG RISKS: This was a reoccurring lesson not learned in Hunt’s life. The need to pay the bills caused him to sell now rather than wait for the possibility of a larger gain in the future. Admittedly, waiting was a risk, but history shows that in most cases, the risk paid off—for someone else.

So it went with a knife sharpener, a stove, a globe caster, fountain pens, ink stands, bottle stoppers, ice-cutters for boats, paper collars, innovations in guns, and the first sewing machine. Invent it, sell it, move on. In Hunt’s defense, he was married and had four children to support.  He needed money.  Now.

He tried his hand at real estate, but his mind was always working, seeing a problem and inventing an answer.

For instance, while trying to figure out how to pay a $15 debt, he was fiddling with a piece of wire—and invented the safety pin. He sold the rights. The rest is history.

Sewing machine drawings

PAPERWORK PAYS & TIMING IS EVERYTHING: Hunt invented the first sewing machine in 1833. He didn’t patent it, but sold the idea to George Arrowsmith. But then there was a recession, a cholera epidemic, and labor issues—seamstresses thought the new machine would put them out of work, so Arrowsmith also let the idea slide.

A decade later, when the world had calmed down, many inventors started expanding on Hunt’s idea.  In 1846, John Greenough received the first patent for a sewing machine.

Then more inventors jumped into the game, and in 1853, Elias Howe and I.M. Singer—two men who took Hunt's idea and expanded on it—were in court, battling for the rights to this very lucrative product. Howe claimed he invented the first workable sewing machine. Singer’s defense involved showing Hunt’s original drawings, dated 1834, which proved Howe wasn't the first, Hunt was (therefore Singer shouldn't have to pay Howe anything.)  In the end the courts acknowledged Hunt as the first inventor, but ruled that because Hunt never filled out the proper paperwork for the patent, Howe could have it. I’m sure Hunt kicked himself on that one.  The lack of paperwork, added to inventing the right idea at the wrong time, equaled nothing. Actually, Issac Singer agreed to pay Hunt $50,000 to end the patent controversy, but Hunt died before receiving the first payment.  Once again, bad timing.

KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS: Even as I reveal my frustration with Hunt’s choice to sell the rights to his inventions and not take the time and energy to manufacture them, I wonder if he was wiser than I give him credit for. Perhaps he knew his strengths—and weaknesses. He clearly was not a businessman. He was good with his hands, he had a mechanical mind, but to develop a factory to manufacture his products, to think about owning a building, hiring workers, marketing the product to the public… Did the breadth of that task overwhelm him? I can imagine him most content in his workspace, tinkering with odd parts, working alone but for the churnings of his mind.

Hmm. Perhaps I need to cut the man some slack. For as a writer I often feel overwhelmed with the new world of publishing and e-publishing and networking and websites and marketing—and just want to be left alone in my workspace, tinkering with odd characters , working alone but for the churnings of my mind.

For even though Hunt didn’t reap great monetary reward (I can feel your pain, Walter) he was highly respected. On June 8, 1859, he died of pneumonia in his workshop—working until the end. I can relate to that, for on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself at my computer through sickness and surgeries and exhaustion. I’d love for my family to find “THE END” typed on the computer when I die.  Dying with your boots on isn't a bad way to go.

RESPECT AND SATISFACTION ARE WORTH MORE THAN MONEY:  All this begs the question of "What is success?"  Is it measured by money?  Fame?  Walter Hunt never earned a lot of money, but he provided for his family.  He wasn't famous, but he enjoyed his work.  After his death, the New York Tribune wrote this about him: "For more than forty years, he has been known (for his) experiments in the arts. Whether in mechanical movements, chemistry, electricity or metallic compositions, he was always at home: and, probably in all, he has tried more experiments than any other inventor."

Which leads to a very important life lesson:   IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED, TRY, TRY AGAIN.  Life is all about trying.  And failing.  And trying again. Hunt did that better than most.

Walter Hunt, inventor extraordinaire, I owe you an apology.  Because hindsight is 20/20 I can look at your life and see your blunders. Yet I cringe when I think of someone in the future dissecting my life, my mistakes, and my missed opportunities. You used your gifts, which is more than a lot of people do: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Luke 12:48

So here it is.  My apology and my kudos.  You did good, Walter. I understand you better now--and I appreciate you./Nancy

1 comment:

  1. Wow. What perseverance. And all I have to do is invent stories! Hunt's kind of mind fascinates me, because mine never works that way....I'm too impatient. You've made me want to learn about any women inventors who remain unsung!