Great ideas are hard to come by. Getting credit for them can be even harder. David Klein, the inventor of the Jelly Belly jellybean, is the subject of our next Doc Talk piece.
Being an inventor isn’t easy. We lavish praise on (and throw lots and lots of money at) America’s greatest entrepreneurs, from Samuel Colt and his revolver, to Zuckerberg and his Facebook. But lost in the fray are the thousands toiling still in their basements, labs, or offices, trying to create the perfect patent, next wonder drug, household appliance, or Internet phenomenon.
Then there are the ones who make it big, only to never see a penny, like smiley face creator Harvey Davis, who failed to file a patent for his design, earning a grand total of $45 for the image now printed on millions of T-shirts at seaside souvenir stands. Or there are those who never lived to see their conception come to fruition, like Franz Reichelt, aka the “flying tailor,” who jumped off the Eiffel Tower to test his “parachute suit,” and plummeted to his death.
Within the world of inventors and entrepreneurs, candymen (and women) have their own niche. Amongst these mad scientists of sweet, it’s a perpetual rat race—who will come up with the next “It” candy? The next Hershey’s Kiss, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Mike and Ike? For candy inventor David Klein, the Jelly Belly is his baby, his magnum opus. Klein is the subject of Candyman: The David Klein Story, featured on the Documentary Channel, and his story is one of rapid success, followed by profound disappointment.
It’s hard to imagine a time when the popular brand didn’t exist. After all, Jelly Bellys are jellybeans—they’re like an institution (how many other jellybean brands can you name?). According to Kate Murphy of The New York Times, before Jelly Bellys, jellybeans consisted of gummy, unflavored centers sweetened with sugar; only the outer shell contained flavoring. Jelly Bellys, on the other hand, with their richly flavored, chewy centers, bucked the trend, changing the jellybean playing field forever.
These were gourmet jellybeans, with exotic flavors (buttered popcorn, anyone?), more taste, natural flavoring, and, surprisingly, less sugar.
Still, with a high price ($2/pound), it took a some time for the new product to garner widespread interest. As with a number of inventions, sometimes a little luck is involved; in this case, it was Ronald Reagan’s sweet tooth that propelled the candy into stardom. The Republican rock star ordered 60 cases of Jelly Bellys per month, providing some great free publicity for the fledgling venture.
Unfortunately, due to some shoddy patent filing, Klein was forced out of the company in 1980. While the Jelly Belly brand has gone on to earn hundreds of millions in yearly revenues, the company has since erased Klein’s name from its history.
Despite the disappointment, the eccentric candy inventor plowed ahead—his new creation, “Spanks,” are super-sour jellybeans (“they will spank your mouth!”). While he remains somewhat bitter, friends and family marvel and his ability to stay grounded, and are incredibly grateful for his kindness as a father and colleague.
Perhaps it’s a testament to American entrepreneurial spirit (and the capitalist system that encourages it)—the ability to bounce back from a financial flop, because there’s always the opportunity to think of something new and unique and popular. On the other hand, can you imagine the flip side: when you have no personal stake, other than a pat on the back, in the success of your creation? When everything is done for the “collective,” or the state, well, there goes the incentive to create in the first place. That’s communism for you.
For example, in the early 1980s Soviet scientist Alexey Pajitnov invented Tetris, which has gone on to become one of the world’s most popular video games, having sold upward of 70 million copies. But back in 1984, the Soviet regime seized his creation, licensing it for worldwide sale and promising compensation for Pajitnov “sometime down the road”—or, as Cracked.com described it, a “big fat check made out to ‘Fuck Your Balls’ in the amount of ‘With a Hammer.’”
So it could be worse. As David Klein admits, “In life you only need to be a genius for 15 seconds. This is America. If you come up with a good idea, you can run with that idea.”
Just make sure you file for the patent correctly.
The Documentary Channel (DOC) is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week television network dedicated exclusively to airing the works of independent documentary filmmakers. By bringing these authentic stories to television viewers nationwide, the Documentary Channel hopes to inspire, motivate, educate, and entertain.
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—Photo (jamieann)/via Flickr