Why you should care
Because getting history right depends on keeping the record straight.
With campfire smoke wafting skyward near the Chattooga River, Bill Masters looked up and started developing what could have become a multimillion-dollar idea: “What if those stars stuck together like spitballs stuck together?” he recalls thinking during that summer of ’76. “Then you can build something out of it — but you need a seed point.”
That concept became the genesis of a 3D-printing patent that Masters filed in 1984 — before some of the most celebrated pioneers in what has become a $6 billion industry filed their own 3D-printing patents. Masters subsequently filed additional patents as well, though few have heard of the now-67-year-old grandpa from South Carolina. For those who have, Masters is better known as a pioneer in a very different field.
Back in the 1970s, this son of an electrical technician, who grew up repairing radios and televisions, tried his hand at constructing kayaks. His first one, built in a friend’s garage, “had about 5,000 pinholes.” But another one, which Masters made in the back of an old mortuary, ended up selling, and he eventually built up and ran the business that became known as Perception Kayaks. The company rapidly expanded and grabbed “the lion’s share” of the U.S. market in white-water boating in the 1980s, The Wall Street Journal reported in 1998, the same year Masters sold Perception Kayaks for an undisclosed sum.
He worked with a team to test a process that … successfully used one of his Rotary Club lapel pins as inspiration to produce a small gear made out of plastic.
Through some of this time, Masters also tried to commercialize his 3D-printing concept by launching a dedicated company to work on its research and development. He worked with a team to test a process that, Masters says, successfully used one of his Rotary Club lapel pins as inspiration to produce a small gear made out of plastic. But when investors got involved, Masters says, they went in their own direction and wanted to use a more complicated method that didn’t have enough computing or software power. In the 1980s, “the concept of 3D printing was way ahead of the technology available at the time to be commercialized,” says Tim Rose, director of business development at Identify3D, a company that provides design protection for digital manufacturing.
There were other issues as well. “I got diluted and lost control of the patent,” says Masters. “For eight long years, the company was plagued with ongoing technical problems and a lack of strong management and direction,” reads a report by industry consultant Terry Wohlers. Eventually, the company shut down.
In the meantime, other entrepreneurs became synonymous with this industry. Chuck Hull, who founded 3D Systems, was dubbed “the father of 3D printing” by The Guardian and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. (A spokesperson for 3D Systems didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding Masters’ patents.) S. Scott Crump, who co-founded Stratasys with his wife, Lisa, was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame. Crump “doesn’t claim to have filed the first patent on 3D printing,” a Stratasys spokesperson says.
To be sure, some argue that the origin of this industry is more complicated than it seems. Three-dimensional printing is “an umbrella term for several types of additive manufacturing technologies,” says John F. Hornick, partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, an intellectual property law firm. Hornick says comparing patent-filing dates may be like comparing “apples and oranges.” What’s more, some say a patent from Ross Housholder might be the first in the U.S. Others point to Hideo Kodama of Japan as the first in the world behind the concept of 3D printing.
Today, Masters can still be found toiling away in his workshop and mentoring a new generation of entrepreneurs. He also garnered some recognition last year when he was presented with the Order of the Palmetto by former U.S. Sen. Larry Martin for his economic development contributions to South Carolina. But you won’t find his little three-dimensional gear in any museum exhibition. “I still have it down in my man room,” Masters says.