A great idea is just the beginning: You have to get a patent, create a product, and keep persisting in your quest.
Have you ever had an idea for a great invention? A way to shoot hoops like Michael Jordan, perhaps? A better way to learn to play the guitar? Something clever to help you do annoying chores?
There are plenty of great inventions left to discover, of course, but some of the ones described above have already been invented - by kids! Not only that, but young inventors have patented their products, marketed them, and are selling them today. Here are some of their stories:
Nicholas Ravagni of Seattle was 5 and had just finished his guitar lesson one day when he decided to stay and watch the next kid play. "He was in tears trying to figure out where the notes were on his guitar," recalls Nicholas, now 14. He went home, and an hour later came up with a solution: He put plastic wrap under the strings and around the neck of his guitar. Then he put little color-coded stickers on top of the plastic to show where your fingers go to play the notes.
"I showed it to my parents," Nicholas says, "and it was kind of that moment where they both looked at each other and said 'Ahh, an idea!' "
Several months later, more inspiration struck. A static-cling vinyl sticker was stuck to his window. "My dad looked at that, and just then it hit him that you can silkscreen ink onto this stuff," Nicholas says. So they bought some vinyl and printed colored dots on it. They tested the idea on some friends. The "Don't Fret Note Map" was born.
But as any inventor will tell you, the road from a great idea to a great product is not always smooth. Once you've invented something, you can apply for a patent from the United States government to protect your idea. When you have a patent, no one else can use your invention to make or sell a product without your permission for up to 20 years.
Here's the hard part, though: Before you can apply for a patent, you must do a lot of research. You have to make sure no one has already patented your idea. You also need to know a lot about how the patent process works and how to write your patent using the correct legal language. Many inventors hire patent attorneys or consultants, who may charge a lot. Getting a patent takes an average of 22 months and $4,000. And that's just for the patent! Turning a patent into a product you can sell may cost even more.
So the Ravagnis hired a patent attorney, then a patent consultant. After several years and more than $10,000 in fees to the lawyer, consultant, and the US Patent and Trademark Office in Arlington, Va., Nicholas finally received a patent. He was 10.
Next, his parents paid $5,000 to a local company to make 10,000 note maps. Nicholas became an eager salesman. He would walk into music stores and say, "I'm Nicholas, and I'm 10 years old, and I have a patented guitar learning-aid invention." Then he would show them the note maps. He even took Web-design classes at a local community college so he could launch his own site (www.dontfret.com).
Months later, his hard work paid off: The world's largest music-distributing company, Hal Leonard Corp., picked up his product. Since then, Nicholas has sold more than 50,000 maps (including the Don't Fret Chord Map and Don't Fret Bass Map, which he also developed).
Now, he has expanded on his original note map even more, and has a patent on an electronic version of the map. It will analyze any song on a CD, and then light up dots on a fingerboard to show you where to put your fingers to play that song. Nicholas is busy trying to secure funding so that he can manufacture it.
His advice: "Do the research. Find out if there is a market for your product, and if there is, be absolutely persistent and follow through with it - just don't give up."
Kristin Hrabar of Aberdeen, N.J., was 9 when she got stuck with the boring task of helping her dad repair the family clothes dryer. "I was holding the flashlight so my dad could see to tighten a bolt," the 17-year-old remembers. "Then I started thinking: 'If there was a way to mount a light on the nut driver, he wouldn't need me to hold the flashlight.' " Bingo.
She came up with a special nut driver, which is much like a screwdriver, only it tightens small nuts. Hers has a hollow shaft and a light mounted in the handle. A few weeks later, she entered it in an inventing contest at school - and won. Then she went on to state competitions. She didn't place, but the judges told her: "This is a great idea; if you don't file for a patent, we will!"
Encouraged, Kristin and her dad went to the patent depository library at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. It's one of the many places around the country that have copies of US patents. There, she and her father did a patent search. "We made three trips to Rutgers, because we couldn't believe there wasn't a patented tool like mine," she says.
Then she hired a patent consultant and applied for a patent. On her 11th birthday, her dad surprised her with a trip to Arlington, Va., to tour the US patent office. There, the employees gave Kristin an even better surprise - a patent!
Later, she even surprised herself by overcoming one of her "worst nightmares": She gave a talk in front her whole school about the process of inventing.
In 1998, she took her tool to an exposition at Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center in Orlando, Fla. Her LaserDriver Tool was one of just 63 inventions to be exhibited out of more than 8,000 submitted.
"There were doctors and lawyers there, with all these high-tech inventions like a wheelchair that could turn on a dime," Kristin recalls. "And here I was, a kid with a little nut driver, feeling kind of dumb."
But to her amazement, she won, and got a $1,000 savings bond.
Still, she couldn't get anyone interested in manufacturing her product. So her family found an Asian company to help them market it themselves. Her family forked over $100,000 for 10,000 tool sets.
"To me," she says, "that's a whole lot of money. But to my parents, it's even more money. But my family had confidence in me and knew that if I put my mind to something I could do it."
The nut-driver sets arrived last fall. Each one comes with nine interchangeable tips and sells for $40 or so. So far she's sold about 1,000 sets at trade shows and on her website, www.laserdriverstore.com.
"Even if I don't make much money," Kristin says, "the experiences I've had, people I've met, and self-confidence I've gained have been amazing enough for me."
Christopher Haas of Murrieta, Calif., was 9 when he got an idea while playing basketball with friends. He noticed they were missing shots because they weren't holding the ball correctly. His solution? He dipped his hands in poster paint and placed them in the correct positions on the basketball. His friends' scores went up, and the Hands-On Basketball was born.
His family sought the help of a free patent consultant. His surprising advice was to not get a patent.
"There were still ways that other companies could change the ball just a little bit to get around a patent," Christopher says, "so a patent wouldn't be worth the money."
Instead, he went to work writing letters to sporting-goods companies. Christopher got about a dozen rejection letters before a small company, Sportime, picked up his product. He was 12 when the company started selling it. A year later, sales were much higher than anyone had expected: more than a million basketballs!
At first, Christopher says, "there were a lot of jealous people telling me that it was a stupid idea and that it would never be anything.... I didn't do anything more than just paint my hands on a basketball, so to see this final product in stores, making lots of money, was pretty crazy."
Since then he has also developed the Hands-On Football and Baseball. And he's made enough money to put himself, his brother, and his sister through college.
"There's probably a lot of misconceptions about what it takes to be an inventor," Christopher says. "You don't have to be a genius. But if you're creative and you work hard, you can do it."
• Thomas Edison (who invented the incandescent light bulb, among other things) holds the record for the most United States patents: 1,093.
• Abraham Lincoln is the only US president with a patent. It was for a device to help keep ships from getting stuck on sandbars.
• The first US patent was granted in 1790 to Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia for his improved method of 'making pot ash and pearl ash,' used in making soap and glass.
• Since that first patent, more than 6 million have been granted.
Note to aspiring inventors: If you have an invention you think is worth patenting, go to the US patent office website at: www.uspto.gov. There you can search to see if someone has already come up with the same idea as you. (There's also a Kids' Page on the site.) The patent office also gives individuals help over the phone: (703) 308-4357.
Learn more about inventing at inventors.about.com. There you can read about famous inventions discovered in August. (Did you know that August is National Inventors Month?)
And if you'd like to enter your invention in a contest, you might try 'Craftsman/NSTA Young Inventors Awards Program.' Begun in 1996, it awards up to $5,000 annually to 36 students in Grades 2 through 8. See: www.nsta.org/programs/craftsman.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office doesn't ask how old you are when you apply for a patent, so they don't know how many kids receive them. But they do know of a few kids who have gotten patents. The youngest they know of is Sydney Dittman of Houston. In 1994, as a 4-year-old, she received a patent for a "tool for grasping round knobs." (Only the inventor can patent an idea. No one can take out a patent on your behalf.)
Other kid inventions that received patents include: underwater walkie-talkies (Rich Stachowski, at age 10) collapsible school-locker shelves (Rachel Kurtis, 11), a lined sheet of paper that glows in the dark (Becky Schroeder, 14), a pouring spout for disposable containers (Akhil Rastogi, 11), and a disposable diaper that holds baby wipes and powder (Chelsea Lanmon, 8). But perhaps the most famous of all "kid patents" is Chester Greenwood's. The Farmington, Maine, native was 15 when he invented earmuffs. He got his patent in 1877, at age 19.