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Fidget spinner craze inventor struggles to make ends meet

As the inventor of the original fidget spinner – the ubiquitous new toy that has quickly become a craze in playgrounds around the world – Catherine Hettinger should be enjoying the high life.

But the Florida-based creator is not making a penny off her genius invention, even as global sales of the gadget she envisioned two decades ago as a way to entertain her seven-year-old daughter soar into the tens of millions and suppliers struggle to meet massive demand.

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.

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.

Catherine Hettinger, creator of the fidget spinner, with her granddaughter Chloe.



Catherine Hettinger, creator of the fidget spinner, with her granddaughter Chloe. Photograph: Richard Luscombe

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.

“There’s just a lot of circumstances in modern life when you’re boxed in, you’re cramped in, and we need this kind of thing to de-stress. It’s also fun. That’s the thing about culture, once everybody starts doing it, it’s kind of OK.”

Her views are not shared by increasing numbers of schools, who are banning children from bringing or using the spinners because they are seen as a distraction. But Hettinger said she was pleased that in other circumstances, schools were finding the devices helpful. “I know a special needs teacher who used it with autistic kids, and it really helped to calm them down,” she said.

Hettinger says the origins of the spinner lie in “one horrible summer” back in the early 1990s 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.

Hettinger, who spent her childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, spent the next few years exhibiting and selling upgraded versions of her design at arts and craft fairs around Florida. “The project was great, I essentially broke even, I sold units and tested it with a couple of thousand people,” she said.

She also flew with her daughter to Washington DC for an appointment with the US patent and trademark office and secured a patent on her design in 1997.

But just when it looked like her original spinner was on track for wider commercial success, Hettinger was hit by a disappointment.

The toy manufacturing giant Hasbro, who had been testing the design, decided not to proceed to production – effectively leaving the project to wither and eventually die with the lapse of the patent in 2005.

“I’m a techie, I’m not a person who closes multimillion-dollar deals,” Hettinger said. “If there had been money or I’d had a venture capitalist back then, it would have been different.”

Undeterred, Hettinger is currently working contract engineering jobs to earn income while helping advise others at meetings of the inventors council of central Florida, and also has plans to manufacture and sell her original spinner design if a Kickstarter appeal can raise enough funds.

It is not quite how things could have turned out had she retained the fidget spinner patent and secured her financial future, but Hettinger insists she has only one regret: “I would probably be doing more inventing,” she said.

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