How Stephen Hawking Touched the Stars and Made Millions
Stephen Hawking was just 21 when doctors diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also knowns as ALS and Lou Gehrig’s disease). He was given only two-and-a-half years to live, yet, remarkably, he died last week at the age of 76. It’s an understatement to classify Hawking’s life as remarkable.
The late cosmologist dedicated his life to science, and let nothing stand in his way, even as his body slowly succumbed to nearly complete paralysis. He will be remembered as one of the greatest scientific minds of all times, up there with Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, and one can only hope his research into the inner workings of black holes will lead to the understanding of how everything in our universe works.
He was a pop culture icon, a brilliant mind, and his work earned him a fortune: Celebrity Net Worth put his worth at $20 million. But just how did Hawking make his millions? Let’s take a look at 16 things Stephen Hawking did to make himself on of the world’s most respected and richest theorists.
A Lifetime of Teaching at Cambridge
Hawking taught at Cambridge from 1977 until his death. He held positions as professor of gravitational physics, research director at Cambridge’s department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, and spent 30 years as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. He first obtained the position of Lucasian in 1979, when he was just 27 years old, and retired from it in 2009.
It’s not clear how much money Hawking made in these positions, but in 2014 the average Cambridge professor was making around £70,000 (or $98,000) annually according to the Times Higher Education. However, during the 1970s and '80s, a lengthy and fascinating article in Vanity Fair says Hawking only made about $25,000 a year a university fellow.
Given Hawking’s fame, it’s safe to say he made significantly more than that as his fame increased exponentially. Cambridge advertised a job for an assistant to Hawking in 2011 which paid £25,000 a year — about $40,000 at the time.
He Won the Biggest Academic Prize in the World
In 2013, the famed scientist won the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics “for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum aspects of the early universe,” according to the Breakthrough website.
And while Hawking never won the Nobel Prize, this one is worth twice as much. Whereas Nobel Prize winners take home $1.4 million, the Breakthrough prize winners get $3 million. Take that, Alfred Nobel!
You can see the video of Hawking receiving the prize here.
The Incredible Success of 'A Brief History of Time'
Hawking published “A Brief History of Time” in 1988 to tremendous critical acclaim and even better sales. The book remained on the Times of London bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks — four-and-a-half years!
It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 147 weeks, been translated into 40 languages, and has since sold over 10 million copies and is estimated to have made the scientist $6 million.
But how did a book about time, the cosmos and the building blocks of the universe become so popular?
He Made It Easy to Read, Not an Easy Task
Hawking didn’t want to write something that only academics would read — he wanted to cast the net as wide as possible.
In an excerpt of his memoir published in the Wall Street Journal, Hawking describes how he told his literary agent that he wanted to write a book that would sell in airports. His agent told him “there was no chance of that.”
Undeterred, Hawking began writing the book in 1982 and finished the first draft 1984. After a publisher picked it up, it was sent back time and time again for multiple rewrites.
He said: "Each time I sent him a rewritten chapter, he [my editor] sent back a long list of objections and questions. At times I thought the process would never end. But he was right: It is a much better book as a result. ”
Thinking in Pictures, not Equations
One of the other main reasons for his financial success for “A Brief History of Time,” and also his ability to explain complex scientific theory, came from the result of his Lou Gehrig’s disease.
As the disease took gradual hold of his body, it robbed him of his ability to write out huge mathematical equations.
“As he lost the ability to write out long, complicated equations, Hawking found new and inventive methods to solve problems in his head, usually by reimagining them in geometric form,” writes Stuart Clark of New Scientist. This aided him in his ability to write books with such mass appeal, since most don’t read a book for its math.
Why he Wrote “A Brief History of Time”
Hawking’s reason for writing the famous book wasn’t entirely to make money — although it was definitely a factor.
Hawking said, “My intention was partly to earn money to pay my daughter's school fees. But the main reason was that I wanted to explain how far we had come in our understanding of the universe: how we might be near finding a complete theory that would describe the universe and everything in it.”
He accomplished both goals — even before it became a bestseller!
A Sizable Contract
When Hawking’s editor first met with him, he showered praises on the scientist, telling him how great it was to meet him.
Hawking responded in a rasp (his larynx had not yet been removed and his iconic computerized voice did not exist). An assistant translated: “’Where’s the contract?’” Hawking had asked.
He demanded $250,000 advance for the book’s North American alone, according to Vanity Fair.
Early Advertising in the United Kingdom
With newfound success with “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking became a pop-culture figure.
He appeared in several commercials which aired in the United Kingdom, including a 1999 commercial for Specsavers, an eyeglass company. According to Vanity Fair, those commercial appearances netted him $2 million.
Seven Figures a Year
The Vanity Fair article also estimates Hawking made approximately $2 million per year in 2004.
“He flew around the world in private jets; his lectures packed the auditoriums of Caltech, Berkeley, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois,” while also meeting with celebrities, politicians, and other influential figures, the article reported.
He Trademarked his Name – for Charity
Ever since the publishing of “A Brief History of Time,” Stephen Hawking became a household name. And through the years, that probably came with a lot of unauthorized merchandise being sold with his name slapped on it.
So in 2015, the cosmologist applied to trademark his name to give him more control over what is essentially his brand.
However, according to CNBC, “Primarily, the trademark is for 'charitable purposes', which could enable Hawking to set up his own foundation, dedicated to motor-neurone disease” and also dictate how his name can be used on merchandising.
Oh, and the filing was approved.
In the United States, Hawking further solidified his role as a pop culture figure for his guest appearances on popular shows. In 1993, he appeared on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” for its season finale. In it, Hawking sits alongside Isaac Newtown, Albert Einstein and the show’s resident android, Lt. Commander Data.
He also appeared on “The Big Bang Theory” seven times, lent his voice to a few episodes of “Futurama” and made several cameos on “The Simpsons,” which immortalized him with an action figure.
It’s not clear how much Hawking made for these appearances, but it certainly added to his popularity — and we’re pretty sure getting Hawking on set didn’t come cheap.
More Commercials, More Appearances
Hawking seemed to be a tireless worker as both a scientist and pop culture figure.
In 2014, he sang Monty Python’s “Galaxy Song” and then ran down a fellow British physicist for a Monty Python Live skit.
In 2016, he starred as a villain in Jaguar’s commercial for their F-PACE vehicle.
He had his own TV Shows
Hawking was the host of several miniseries aired in the U.S. and U.K.
They include “Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design,” “Genius by Stephen Hawking,” “Stephen Hawking’s Brave New World,” “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking,” “Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything,” and “Stephen Hawking’s Universe.”
These shows aired, intermittently, from 1997 to 2016.
A Movie was Based on his Life
In 2014 “The Theory of Everything” released to much critical acclaim. The movie was based on an autobiographical book by Jane Hawking, Stephen’s ex-wife. The film explores the famed scientist’s early life, the gradual onset of ALS, his climb to fame and the difficulties Jane and Stephen had to endure and, ultimately, were unable overcome (they divorced in 1995).
“The Theory of Everything” did rather well at the box office — with a budget of only $15 million, the movie made $124 million in theaters.
A Slew of Awards and Accolades
Hawking may have been one of the most decorated people on the planet. Cambridge News has his entire curriculum vitae, but since it would take several pages to publish them here, here’s just a sample of his awards which he earned around the globe:
- Maxwell Medal and Prize, Institute of Physics
- The Albert Einstein Award
- James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, Smithsonian Institution
- Aventis prizes for science books
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
- The Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award
- Copley Medal of the Royal Society
- Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize
- Encyclopedia Britannica Award
- Fonseca Prize, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
- Honorary Freedom of the City of London
Some of these awards are just prestigious, while others come with prize money. For example, the Albert Einstein Award pays $5,000 , the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld pays $10,000 and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society pays £25,000 (about $35,000).
He Wrote More Best-Selling Science Books
After “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking wrote six other popular science books, including “Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays,” “On the Shoulders of Giants,” and “A Briefer History of Time,” where he rewrote the original and updated it with newly discovered science.
In 2001 he published “The Universe in a Nutshell,” which is generally held to be the sequel to “A Brief History of Time.”
The book was a bestseller and earned Hawking the Aventis prize, which earned him an additional $35,000.
He Even Wrote Children's Books
Stephen Hawking wasn’t just a science author — he also dabbled in children’s literature.
In 2007, Hawking teamed up with his daughter, Lucy Hawking, to write a book for kids about space adventurers which also taught children actual scientific concepts.
The book, “George’s Secret Key to the Universe” was followed by four sequels.
Those books will be a good place to start when Hawking’s future grandchildren start their journey to understand the world around us — or maybe even discover the theory of everything.