It’s a lesson most know about, yet will hardly have a chance in their lifetime to practice: if you invent something amazingly cool, patent immediately.
Unfortunately, although Catherine Hettinger knew and practised the lesson, life got in the way.
You see, Hettinger is the inventor of the original fidget spinner, which is, as The Guardian describes, “the ubiquitous new toy that has quickly become a craze in playgrounds around the world”:
The palm-sized spinners consist of a ball bearing which sits in a three-pronged plastic device which can then be flicked and spun round. Some schools in the UK and the US have banned the devices, but some teachers believe that they can help children concentrate – especially those with ADHD.
As global sales of the gadget soar into “tens of millions and suppliers struggle to meet massive demand,” the Florida-based creator, however, has not earned a cent off the invention she envisioned two decades ago.
Here’s her story:
Hettinger held the patent on finger spinners for eight years, but surrendered it in 2005 because she could not afford the $400 (£310) renewal fee.
“I just didn’t have the money. It’s very simple,” she said.
Now, while the manufacturers and retailers who are selling the modern-day versions of the toy rack up huge profits, Hettinger, 62, is downsizing from her tiny house to a cheaper condo, wondering whether to get her disconnected telephone line reinstated, and figuring out how to afford “a car that truly works”.
“It’s challenging, being an inventor,” she told the Guardian during a coffee-shop interview near her home in Winter Park, a historic suburban city just east of Orlando.
“Only about 3% of inventions make any money. I’ve watched other inventors mortgage their houses and lose a lot. You take roommates, you get help from friends and family. It is hard.”
Hettinger accepts that had she been able to afford to keep the patent, she would now likely be sitting on a sizeable fortune. “I wouldn’t have any problem. That would have been good,” she said.
But while she joins a notable list of others – including Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web, and hoverboard inventor Shane Chen, who by accident or design failed to cash in personally on their world-changing creations – Hettinger insists that she is not bitter over the lost opportunity, and is instead “encouraged” by the spinners’ sudden popularity.
“Several people have asked me: ‘Aren’t you really mad?’ But for me I’m just pleased that something I designed is something that people understand and really works for them,” she said.
Hettinger originally came up with the idea back in the early 90s when she was “suffering from myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness”, and was also caring for her daughter Sara, now 30.
“I couldn’t pick up her toys or play with her much at all, so I started throwing things together with newspaper and tape then other stuff,” she said. “It wasn’t really even prototyping, it was some semblance of something, she’d start playing with it in a different way, I’d repurpose it.”
After several redesigns, a basic, non-mechanical version of the spinner was born. “We kind of co-invented it – she could spin it and I could spin it, and that’s how it was designed,” she added.
If you, like me, have no idea what in the world a fidget spinner is, take a look:
Yeah, I also got bored at the 20-second mark., but it would have been nice if she made some moola off the back of her big idea.
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