Ideas aren't everything: Cash

Ideas aren't everything: Cash


Part three: cash

No money, more problems – history is full of unsung inventors who failed to secure the investment to make big plans happen

27th September 2016
By Rhodri Marsden
Illustration by Peter Judson

Read previous instalments in this series: Ideas aren't everything: Paranoia; Hubris

Norman Vincent Peale, Christian minister and author of the bestselling book The Power of Positive Thinking, once said that "empty pockets never held anyone back". This may have summed up Peale's particular brand of blind optimism, but he was wrong. (Obviously.) Countless innovators have had their efforts stymied or curtailed by a shortage of cash, if not to further the progress of the invention itself then at least to put some food on the table in the meantime.

Invention needs investment, and while many inventors are willing to lose the shirt off their back to make their ideas happen, sometimes one shirt just isn't enough.

It's a crying shame, but success often boils down to sales – that is, the ability to persuade someone (anyone) with deep pockets to empty them. In 1851, John Gorrie won a US patent for 'a machine to make ice' which he demonstrated to an open-mouthed press at a launch event in Florida (chilled wine! In the height of summer!); but when he visited New Orleans to seek financial backing he came away empty-handed. Today, Gorrie is honoured as a pioneer of refrigeration, but the price of that honour was financial ruin.

There are many tales of unsung inventors who failed to secure funding. While Marconi is the guy we immediately associate with the wireless telegraph, American dentist Mahlon Loomis sent signals between two mountains in West Virginia some 20 years before Marconi. But his appeals to politicians for cash assistance were ignored, and money promised from private investors failed to materialise because of stock market crashes and natural disasters. When you read about Loomis, the word 'embittered' is usually in there somewhere.

"I know that I am regarded as a crank for allowing myself, to the sacrifice of material advantages, to abandon a lucrative profession and pursue this ignis fatuus," he said, before dying, embittered.

Invention needs investment, and while many are willing to lose the shirt off their back to make their ideas happen, sometimes one shirt isn’t enough

Loomis and Gorrie could consider themselves unlucky, but sometimes the controllers of the purse strings are so risk-averse that the inventor just doesn't stand a chance. Geoffrey Dummer, known today as 'prophet of the integrated circuit', presented the first description of the modern microchip at a conference in Washington DC in May 1952. But while his American counterparts were showered with financial assistance, Dunmer, who continued to work at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern (later the Royal Radar Establishment), had to deal with a monumental heap of British indifference. "I have attributed it to war-weariness," he said, "[but] the plain fact is that nobody would take the risk."

One hundred years earlier, Charles Babbage also cursed the government's shortsightedness in refusing to fund his Analytical Engine – although, to be fair, it had already splurged £17,000 on funding his Difference Engine, which resulted in one five-ton fragment being completed before the project was abandoned.

When we run short of money, we seek out new work. But when ideas are big and ambition fierce, giving up isn't really an option, and the story inevitably becomes one of endurance. Frank Whittle's turbojet engine did eventually become reality, but no thanks to the British Air Ministry, which delayed, prevaricated and repeatedly failed to come up with the money needed to see the project through. "I have a good crowd round me," said Whittle. "They are all working like slaves, so much so, that there is a risk of mistakes through physical and mental fatigue."

For the want of a bit of cash, and a bit of faith, Whittle worked for 16 hours a day, smoked endlessly, suffered from stress-related conditions, became addicted to benzedrine and developed an explosive temper. He is unlikely to have been receptive to Norman Vincent Peale’s ideas about the Power of Positive Thinking.

More in this series
Ideas aren't everything: Paranoia
Ideas aren't everything: Hubris


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