The loose wire coil of Isaac Walter's spiral notebook dangled out of place near his forearm. Just a few inches closer and – snag! – another sweater torn.
At that moment, the idea for Spiral Saver was created. It was a superhero moment, although no capes or tights were involved. All Isaac needed was just one piece of cloth, 4 inches by 11-1/2 inches, that he attached to the front and back covers of a spiral notebook with double-sided tape, and, voilà, he had a soft, protective covering for unruly wire coils.
A few months later, Isaac, who's from Camp Point, Ill., discovered a potential outlet for his invention. Staples, the office-supply company, was hosting its first Invention Quest contest for students under the age of 18.
Isaac entered his product design in the competition, as did thousands of other kids across the US. Earlier this month, Staples flew him to its national headquarters in Framingham, Mass., for the semifinal round of the contest.
Only 14 other young inventors received an invitation. Each arrived armed with what was needed to duplicate their inventions: items such as a sketchbook for diagrams and, for Isaac, a bright blue piece of cloth.
March 5 was a long and busy day for all the contestants. Isaac was tired but exhilarated.
Megan Malcolm, a competitor from Hawthorn Camp, Ill., felt the same. "I was a little nervous at first ... [but] it's been a great experience," she said.
During nearly eight hours that Monday, contestants took turns presenting their inventions to a panel of five senior managers who represented different departments in the company, such as marketing and merchandising.
Throughout the day, the students also spoke to reporters. From noon until 1 p.m., they stood at individual tables as curious Staples employees passed by to view their inventions and ask questions.
But their most important audience was the five judges on the lookout for an invention that was original, useful, simple to understand, and relatively easy to manufacture.
From the 15 young inventors who demonstrated their ideas in Framingham, five finalists will be announced April 2. The finalists will each receive a $5,000 gift and go on to the final round in New York at the end of April. The winner there will win $25,000. Staples will consider manufacturing his or her product and pay the inventor royalties if it is sold in stores.
Isaac was ready for the challenge. Spiral Saver comes in different colors, he explained, holding up the bright-blue prototype. So students can personalize their notebooks with their favorite pattern or hue.
Other competitors' inventions also turned out to be simple designs meant to address a common problem.
Megan came up with her invention – a kids' mouse pad with a timer – when she realized she was using the computer too much. Her product turns off the computer monitor after a predetermined period of time. It can also turn it on again after a preset number of minutes (between 15 minutes and an hour, she recommends).
The device allows users to take needed breaks, but it doesn't force game players lose points or end games in the middle. The timer would put any games being played on "pause," she assured potential users.
Although contestants "took a real solutions-oriented approach," as Mike Nelson, a vice president at Staples, noted, not all the inventions were simply functional. Some were just fun.
David Farrell Jr., a 10-year-old from Philadelphia, has created a number of decorative designs for stapler covers.
Imagine: The next time you wanted to staple your homework assignment together, you could have a fierce green crocodile's rows of teeth chomping down on the paper.
Or if you prefer nongreen creatures, try the dog cover, or the bird, shark, or insect. He also created a dinosaur variety of his "creature stapler cover," but only because his brother likes them, he explained.
In his neat gray suit and matching bow tie, the fifth-grader took me through a series of drawings he had prepared for his presentation. He flipped rapidly through his sketchbook as though he'd rehearsed a million times and had already memorized each page.
There were multiple pictures of the back of the stapler cover, detailing exactly how his product will fit over its intended partner. David has thought carefully about his invention's execution.
Whether designed for safety, health, or fun, each invention in the contest required imagination – seeing ordinary objects, drawings, and situations in a unique way that others haven't.
While countless numbers of students suffered the occasional snag from a spiral notebook coil, Isaac came up with a simple solution to protect his sleeves.
Megan knew she and others needed a break from video games and created a way to force computer lovers to rest their eyes. And where others saw a picture of a long, thin crocodile, David imagined a stapler cover.
"Write down your ideas," suggests Isaac to other kids who may think about creating an invention, because you never know when good ideas will come or go – and because you may have more than one excellent idea. For instance, three of the 15 entries of the Staples semifinalists came from one contestant alone.
David takes a more rigorous approach to inventing. "Get good grades, listen to the teacher, and draw better," he says seriously.
Finding opportunities to share your ideas also helps.
Megan heard about Staples Invention Quest Kids from her teacher at school, which also held an "invention convention" for students.
Because there are plenty of needs left to meet and problems to solve, there remains an infinite number of inventions waiting to be discovered. One might be yours!