Secret Inventions Bought By Big Business?

No, I don’t live in a trailer in the mountains of Montana…but over the years there have always been rumors of that great invention that never saw the light of day because Government/Big Business/Bill Gates or whoever bought it and tucked away the plans in the basement.

My one close encounter with such an invention was in the 60’s when a man told me of a great car oil filter than used a simple roll of toilet paper in a cartridge. He claimed you would only need to change oil every 100,000 miles, but the patent was bought by “the oil companies” so that they could continue to sell oil to us on a more regular basis.
Truth or the ravings of a madman? I do not know.

So the real question is: Are there/were there any such great inventions that were sold outright to big business to ensure the status quo?

(If you have proof, that would be nice to know.)

No one has yet come up with an example. Some swindlers, OTOH, use the excuse to bilk people.

Some are especially silly. For instance, people accuse Gilette of burying a longer-lasting razor blade. However, the stainless steel blades they are marketing have a much longer useful life than older blades. What Gilette fails to do is inform people that they don’t have to throw out their blades every week and can keep using them 2-3 weeks without problem.

Ive heard similar rumors that big ‘energy’ (read: oil) companys have patented all the decent ideas in alternative energy (solar, wind, geothermal etc) therefore stalling research in those areas and ensuring continued consumption of oil.

J.C. Whitney used (say, 10-15 years ago) to sell an oil filter that worked this way – open it up and put in a roll of toilet paper. I don’t believe they sold a great many.

Yeah, but you could only use it in a car with the 300mpg carb. :smiley:

Well, since this type of filter has been available continuously since the 60s, if the oil companies are trying to suppress it, they’re doing a piss poor job.

Check out this link from “Click and Clack”, the Car Talk guys:

I tend to think that the inventions that are “suppressed” by some evil corporation are the ones that for some reason don’t sell well.


Wow! Thanks Xema!
So the guy wasn’t crazy…he claimed back then that he tested it in his car for the guy who invented it and after 30,000 miles he got curious and changed the oil. He said it came out as clean as the day he put it in so he put the same oil back in the car. This was in about 1965 or so…but he told me the guy who invented it got a nice pile of cash when he sold the patent and moved to the West Coast.
I always thought it was some kind of urban legend.
Maybe there might be some truth in some other stories as well, but I have to agree with RealityChuck…these stories usually sound more like the start of a swindle.

OOH!!! OOH!!!

I have been meaning to ask about the toilet filter. I once saw an episode of “Beyond 2000” about it. They did say, however, that you needed a special toilet paper that is wound twice as tightly as normal paper. The claim was that you would never need to change your oil again.

Ooops…posted my answer before I saw what RJKUgly had to say about that…
Yeah, I guess according to that article, this was a pretty pisspoor secret after all…oh well.
It made for a pretty good conspiracy story back then…

How about the electric streetcar? Hundreds of cities used to have these relatively clean, efficient public transit systems. Beginning in the 1930s, firms such as General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone began buying them out and replacing them with buses. Not only did they profit from the changeover to these gas- and tire-based vehicles, but the service was also less than stellar, no doubt forcing many people to buy cars. In 1949, after having dismantled over one hundred electric streetcar systems, GM and its partners were fined a paltry $5000 by a federal court.

Not sure if this example counts as streetcars aren’t exactly secret technology, but it certainly goes to show that the scenario you imagine is plausible.

Dirty oil isn’t the only reason to change it. It loses viscosity and breaks down after it’s been used for a while due to the tremendous amounts of heating and cooling cycles it goes through. No filter can restore these properties to it. So, Click and Clack notwithstanding, I still think it’s a risky proposition.

psychonaut If you could, would you please list any sources for your assertions that the electric streetcar companies were bought out by General Motors, Goodyear, Standard Oil.

I have no knowledge on the subject, but would love to learn more.


I can’t remember where I first read about it, but I did a Google search to come up with the dates I mentioned in my post. Here are some of the pages I found, a number of which are reprints of journal articles, and include references:

General Motors’ destruction of California transit systems
Public transport shut down for private gain
Revisiting the American streetcar scandal

Here are some dissenting views:
General Motors and the demise of streetcars
The great GM conspiracy legend

Of course, if you do your own search, you will also find rebuttals to the rebuttals, and rebuttals to the rebuttals to the rebuttals, and so on ad nauseam. Review the evidence and decide for yourself.

This may not be entirely urban legend, but it certainly seems to be inflated beyond the reality. Check out what Unca Cece has to say about it:

Searching around the web gives lots of hits for both sides of the argument, but from the bits I’ve read about it, it seems clear that the trolleys were facing very tough times at the least, with or without GM.


Sigh. I need someone to explain patent law to me again, please.

I was under the impression that many inventions can only be patented for a set period of time.

Wouldn’t that mean that the 30 MPG carbs and the like are now falling into the public domain?

Of course, since I don’t know jack about how the legal process works, this entire post will probably make me look all the more a fool.

Electric streetcars require space consuming tracks and overhead wires. Traditional electric busses require overhead wires. Diesel busses require neither tracks nor overhead wires. Have a boo at the Toronto Transit System in this respect (1,468 buses, 248 streetcars, 672 subway cars, 28 rapid transit cars).

Not only do patents expire (17 years, as I recall), but one of the trade-offs when you patent something is that you have to disclose how it works and publish the information.

If companies were patenting wind and solar technology as Pythagoras is suggesting, EVERYONE would know about it. Anyone could go to the patent office and study the plans.

The notion that corporations can suppress technology is a way to justify why certain treasured beliefs haven’t come to pass. Why haven’t we gotten rid of oil and all its problems and replaced it with clean solar and wind power? Why, the evil corporations are stopping us!

For some people, that’s a lot more pleasant to believe than the truth, which is that we simply don’t know how to use solar and wind power in a way that is competitive with oil and coal for most purposes.

My older brother bought one of the TP filters from JC Whitney. The engine in his car (65 Ford Fairlane) expired about about 20 miles later when the TP disinigrated and plugged up all the oil passages in the engine.

That should teach him not to buy Mobile TP.:smiley:

As for the streetcars, it’s best not to get your information from watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?