Great Innovators Over 40
Not Just a Young Man's GameGertrude B. Elion, 41: ScientistBurt Rutan, 41: Scaled CompositesBenjamin Franklin, 41: StatesmanNikola Tesla, 42: InventorSam Walton, 44: WalmartJohn Bogle, 45: Vanguard GroupMary Kay Ash, 45: Mary Kay CosmeticsHenry Ford, 45: Ford Motor CompanySteve Jobs, 46: AppleJulia Child, 49: ChefIgor Sikorsky, 52: Sikorsky AircraftRay Kroc, 52: McDonald’sToni Morrison, 57: NovelistGeorge Bernard Shaw, 82: PlaywrightElliott Cook Carter Jr., 90: Composer
The Mark Zuckerbergs of the world haven't cornered the market on innovation. New research suggests that middle age might be the ideal time to challenge the status quo. In fact, the average age that Nobel Prize winners and great inventors make their most notable breakthrough is 39, according to a study by Benjamin F. Jones, a professor at Kellogg School of Management.
Why are so many people trying to innovate later in life? Middle age brings confidence, experience, deeper networks, and maybe even some cash savings. Here are some innovators who hit their stride after 40.
Elion developed treatments for many major diseases--including cancer, malaria, and AIDS. In 1959, at 41, she received a patent on a treatment for leukemia. She was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine.
In 1984, after decades of aerospace inventions, Rutan launched the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping, at 41. At 62, he launched the first privately funded human space flight, with the suborbital space plane SpaceShipOne. Rutan, 70, recently retired.
Franklin began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack in his 20s, but he did not invent the lightning rod until he was 41, in 1749. He signed the Declaration of Independence at 70.
Tesla had a hand in many disruptive inventions, including electric motors and X-rays. One big breakthrough came in 1898, when, at 42, he demonstrated the first radio-controlled boat in New York City, helping to lay the groundwork for radio transmissions.
In 1962, after years of managing retail stores, Walton opened his first Walmart store at 44. He pioneered the big-box retail model. With his aggressive push for discounting, Walton shifted the balance of power in retailing from the manufacturer to the consumer.
After being fired from Wellington Management in 1974, Bogle, then 45, founded the Vanguard Group. Its innovative approach to fund management saved shareholders hundreds of billions in fees and disrupted the financial industry. Bogle, 84, is now retired.
After a decade of watching men get promoted ahead of her, this saleswoman set out, at 45, to build Mary Kay Cosmetics in 1963. Ash brought multilevel marketing into the mainstream, tapping an underemployed army of women to sell her products.
Ford fiddled with automobile inventions for seven years before starting Ford Motor Company in 1903. At 45, he introduced the Model T, sparking the American auto boom. He also created the first moving assembly line.
Though he founded Apple at 21, Jobs launched some of his most successful products later in life--including the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010. They fundamentally changed how people consume media and use the Internet.
Child didn't hit her stride until 49, when she co-authored the 3-pound cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961. Through the book and her cooking shows, Child introduced French culinary skills to the American masses.
In 1942, after decades of tinkering on aviation projects, the Russian-American founder of Sikorsky Aircraft created the first modern mass-produced helicopter, the R-4, at 52.
The McDonald's founder worked as a piano player and a paper-cup salesman before, at 52, he set out in 1940 to build what would become the world's largest restaurant chain. Kroc systemized operations so that a burger in any city would taste the same.
The American writer published her first novel at 39. In 1988, at 57, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved. Morrison, who has received a Nobel Prize for her work, continues to write at 82.
Shaw wrote his first successful work at 38 and continued to write hits well into his 60s. He later won a Nobel Prize in literature and, at 82, an Oscar.
This American, who wrote many orchestral pieces and ballets, twice won the Pulitzer Prize--in 1967, at 59, and in 1973, at 65. He also wrote more than 40 works from ages 90 to 100.