It was her seven-year-old daughter — and her fidgeting — who gave Catherine Hettinger a million-dollar idea.
The Florida-based inventor, who lives a few miles northeast of Orlando, was thinking up ways to keep her young child and other kids occupied back in the 1980s, she later told the Guardian. She was also inspired to find a less destructive solution by young boys she once saw throwing rocks at people as a distraction, she told Time Magazine.
The young mother’s answer was a top-like toy, which children could spin around a central axis. But though that concept has become wildly popular in the last year among young children and toy companies as the “fidget spinner,” Hettinger isn’t seeing a dime in profit.
The reason: Hettinger, who today is struggling to replace her car and find a cheaper place to live, gave up her eight-year patent on the concept in 2005, unable to afford the $400 renewal fee.
“I just didn’t have the money,” she told the Guardian. “It’s very simple.”
The toy, now sold by dozens of companies, is bringing in profits tens of thousands of times over what Hettinger would have needed to pay to retain that patent. According to the Wall Street Journal, fidget spinners sales brought in revenue totaling $2.6 million last month, and one toy manufacturer told the paper that they are seeing 200 orders an hour for the catchy toys.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying that Hettinger’s toy concept didn’t take off decades ago. She filed for a patent in 1993 and eventually secured it from the U.S. Patent and Trademark office four years later, according to documents.
She went to toy fairs selling the spinners, which she described in her patent application as “to provide enjoyment and entertainment for adults and children,” but only sold a few thousand, Time reported.
She also pitched several toy companies on the device, including Hasbro, the multinational toy company known for Monopoly, Furby and My Little Pony. Hettinger was thrilled when Hasbro took on the idea for testing, but the company eventually cast it aside before making a commercial product, according to Time.
It was after that she let the patent on her idea lapse, the Guardian reported — meaning companies now can produce the product without having to compensate her for originating the fidget spinner concept. Among them is Hasbro.
But Hettinger said she wasn’t disappointed she missed out.
“Maybe if it was some kind of exploitative product — like a new style of cigarettes — and my only motivation was to make money, I’d have a different attitude,” Hettinger told Time. “But I am just thrilled.”
“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 also told the Guardian.
Hettinger is hoping to return to the toy business now that her old idea has taken off: She started a website to advertise the “classic spinner” while she assembles a Kickstarter that she hopes will model the original “fidget spinner idea.”