The new documentary Genius On Hold tells the bizarre tale of mid-century inventor Walter L. Shaw, who never made a dime in royalties despite patents that included the speakerphone, direct dialing, voice-activated calling, call forwarding, and conference calling.
A high school dropout, Shaw also invented the Cold War “red phone” enabling the White House to communicate with the Kremlin during nuclear attacks and devised a satellite communications device that enabled fugitive Mafia leader Meyer Lanksy to secretly communicate with his wife.
Shaw turned to the mob only after his longtime employer Bell Laboratories refused to share profits generated by his inventions. Fed up with AT&T’s then-monopoly over the telecom industry, Shaw built the “Black Box” toll-free phone calling device that allowed bookies to take illegal bets without being detected by FBI wiretaps.
For his efforts, Shaw received a Cadillac from the Cosa Nostra, testified before Congress about racketeering in the early 1950s and eventually served four years in prison for using “unauthorized attachments” on AT&T telephone lines.
The kicker: Shaw’s embittered son became a jewel thief. After robbing 2,200 homes, Walter Thiel Shaw served 11.5 years in prison, then set to work producing Genius On Hold. “My father only cared about inventing,” says Shaw. “In the garage behind our house, he’d sit there for hours, inventing, working on schematics.”
But Walter L. Shaw’s financial acumen failed to match his technical ingenuity. Citing the opinion of his father’s longtime attorney, Shaw says, “My dad was a good guy but a lousy business man.”
2011’s America Invents Act legally established the notion that inventors should profit from their creatIons, but vindication came too late for Shaw. He spent the last months of his life living in a Reno, Nevada, bus station before briefly reuniting with his son’s family in 1996. “My dad showed up with holes in his shoes and a tattered suit. He was penniless,” recalls Walter Thiel Shaw.
For all its surreal twists, Genius on Hold, opening in limited release Friday, is hardly the first movie to embrace the Tragic Inventor archetype. Recent tech history brims with stories of genius innovators whose brilliance failed to ward off bankruptcy, insanity, heartbreak, and litigation.
Click through the slide show above for the stories of other inventors whose lives went off the rails en route to greatness.