Innovator: Walter Shaw.

Innovator: Preston Tucker.

Nemesis: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler
Breakthrough: Maverick entrepreneur Tucker designed the 1948 Tucker Sedan, a gorgeous, technologically advanced car that Detroit’s then-immovable Big Three monopoly effectively blackballed. Tucker got into trouble with the Security and Exchange Commission when he raised funds by selling accessories to potential buyers before the car went into production. Tucker failed to figure out a feasible manufacturing model.
Big Screen: Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 bio-pic Tucker: The Man and His Dream pictured Jeff Bridges as the maverick car designer who rebelled against Ford, Chrysler, and GM.
Third Act: After trying to put together another automobile venture in Brazil, Tucker, 56, succumbed in 1956 to lung cancer. His right hand man, industrial designer Alex Tremulis, said the inventor died of a "broken heart."

Innovator: Robert Kearns.

Nemesis: Ford, Chrysler
Breakthrough: Kearns invented intermittent windshield wipers and tried to license his technology to Detroit automakers. The "Big Three" turned him down only to come out with their own variations on the system. Kearns won lawsuits against Ford and Chrysler for patent infringement.

Innovator: Robert Kearns.

Big Screen: Flash of Genius, featuring Greg Kinnear, suggests that Kearns’s wife, stressed by the continuous stream of lawsuits, filed for divorce.
Third Act: Kearns died of brain cancer in 2005 three years before the bio-pic hit theaters.

Innovator: Nikola Tesla.

Nemesis: Thomas Edison
Breakthrough: Electricity. Serbian-American Tesla invented alternating current, which he planned to distribute as a cheap form of energy. Pitted against rival Edison’s superior business skills, Tesla failed to attract the financing needed to make his innovations a reality.

Innovator: Nikola Tesla.

Big Screen: David Bowie plays the eccentric inventor in Christopher Nolan’s magic-meets-science thriller The Prestige. Indie filmmakers Joseph Sikorski and Michael Calomino plan to shoot their bio-pic Fragments of Olympus on the grounds of a former Tesla laboratory in Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, England. Christian Bale may star in Universal Pictures’ Tesla, Rule of the World, with Nic Cage reportedly considering the role of Thomas Edison.
Third Act: In 1943, Tesla died alone and penniless in a room at the New Yorker Hotel.

Innovator: John Nash.

Nemesis: Schizophrenia
Breakthrough: At MIT and Princeton University, the mathematician pioneered nonzero game theory, which paved the way for fresh thinking about market economics, military strategy, and artificial intelligence.

Innovator: John Nash.

Big Screen: Oscar-winning 2001 bio-pic A Beautiful Mind cast Russell Crowe as the man whose academic insights became muddled with paranoid delusions. In real life, Nash’s illness resulted in several mental hospital stays between 1959 and 1970.
Third Act: Nash and two other scientists won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. He lives in New Jersey.

Innovator: John McAfee.

Nemesis: Volatile personality coupled with early retirement in Belize. McAfee fled to Guatamala when police sought to question him in connection with a nearby murder.
Breakthrough: McAfee Invented antivirus software that remains the industry standard for corporate and individual computer systems.
Big Screen: Two upcoming bio-pics vie to tell McAfee’s story on the big screen. Warner Bros. has hired Bad Santa scribes John Requa and Glenn Ficarra to write about the tech mogul’s misadventures in Belize. Impact Future Media and Equinoxe Films is developing a $28 million production Running in the Background based on McAfee’s own writings.
Third Act: McAfee is working on his memoirs in Portland, Oregon.


When Innovation Goes Wrong: "Genius On Hold" And The Tragic Inventor Archetype

Genius On Hold tells the story of ill-fated telecoms pioneer Walter L. Shaw. Here, how he and other innovators went off the rails on the way to immortality.

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.

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