Inspiring innovators: Walter Hunt

Fri, Apr 29, 2011, 01:00

THE PANTHEON OF great inventors must have a special corner dedicated to those creative souls who were good at making everything except money. The image of the penniless inventors, their creations making other people rich, is an enduring one in the popular imagination, and few fit the description of the unfortunate inventor quite as perfectly as Walter Hunt.

While Hunt’s name has largely been forgotten, at least one of his inventions is one of the most ubiquitous household objects in existence – the humble safety pin. Surely the person behind such an inspired creation got rich off the back of his ingenuity? No: not only did Hunt fail to capitalise on the safety pin, he barely capitalised on any of his multiple inventions. His life’s work was full of inventions in a wide variety of fields, but the one thing they all had in common was that he failed to profit greatly from any of them.

Hunt was born in the small town of Martinsburg in upper New York state at the tail end of the 18th century, where he trained in masonry and worked in a textile mill. While still in his 20s, Hunt developed a more efficient flax spinner, an early example of his mechanical ingenuity. It was for this invention he received his first patent in 1826, and it was then that he began what was to become an unfortunate habit – while trying to raise the capital to make a business around his new machine, he decided to sell the patent outright. The result was an immediate payday, but the loss of subsequent earning potential – and a pattern of treating his patents, rather than his inventions, as a commodity to be traded. A byproduct of the patent system, designed to protect the intellectual property of inventors, was an ancillary market in those intellectual properties and, for whatever reason, Hunt proved incapable of resisting the lure of the quick pay cheque.

In 1827, Hunt and his family moved to New York city, where he worked in real estate while continuing to create a range of inventions. He patented a coach alarm, a pedal-operated bell for carriage drivers to warn pedestrians of oncoming horses – Hunt sold the patent but probably helped save many lives.

He invented a fountain pen and inkwell, a nail-making machine, an ice-breaking boat, a rope-making machine, a knife sharpener, an innovative stove and a street sweeper – there was no limit to his mechanical curiosity. He invented an early repeating rifle and cartridge, whose design would be utilised by Smith and Wesson. Perhaps most outlandishly, he designed a shoe that allowed its wearer to walk on walls and ceilings – the “antipodean apparatus” was used by circus performers into the 1930s. The patents were usually sold to investors and businesses who reaped the future profits.

The invention that consumed most of his energy was his groundbreaking sewing machine, which lead to a protracted legal battle. In 1833, he developed the first workable sewing machine, but sold the rights to a businessman who struggled to manufacture it successfully and, crucially, never patented it.

At this point, before the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, Hunt was concerned the machine would put seamstresses out of work. Such caution proved costly, as in 1846 a patent for a sewing machine was awarded to Elias Howe, who began a series of lawsuits against other sewing machine manufacturers, a dispute into which Hunt became embroiled when he advanced his claims on the design.

Hunt was eventually recognised as the inventor, but because he never applied for a patent, Howe kept the intellectual property rights.

The case didn’t end there, however, with Isaac Singer, whose Singer Sewing Machines owed a lot to Hunt’s designs, finally agreeing to pay Hunt $50,000 in 1858. However, Hunt died of pneumonia in 1859, before any payments were made.

The sewing machine controversy might have brought Hunt most attention during his life, but it is his safety pin design that has endured. The story goes that Hunt, worried about a $15 debt, was fiddling with a piece of wire when the idea for a covered pin began to form.

The two principal innovations were the safe cover for the pin head, and the coiled spring at the other end to ensure the head stayed covered. It took him just a few hours to create and, once patented, he sold the rights to a manufacturer for an amount variously reported as either $100 or $400 – in any case, he never saw any further profits earned by his simple little invention.

The safety pin is one of those objects that can never be usurped – its form so elementary, so perfectly adapted to its purpose, that subsequent evolution is minimal. In that sense it’s like a fork or scissors – once the ideal form is achieved, all further improvements can only be marginal changes to material or aesthetics.

With his elegant little invention, Walter Hunt left a lasting mark on the world, at the very least by ensuring there were fewer marks left on people’s fingers.