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Inventing a Better -- Colored -- Bubble


A story now about bubbles. Not the stock market kind or the housing kind, the soapy kind, the kind you blow through a wand, which turns out to be big business. Sales of bubbles and bubble toys added up to $110 million just last year. About a decade ago, toy inventor Tim Kehoe thought to himself `Wouldn't it be great to turn the traditional translucent bubble into a colored one?' And he recently brought some into the studio at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

(Soundbite of bubbles, music)

Mr. TIM KEHOE (Toy Inventor): Here we go. Theater of the mind.

(Soundbite of jar opening; blowing on wand)

Mr. KEHOE: Letting loose colored bubbles in the studio.

MONTAGNE: Colored bubbles. Now all bubbles have a little color in them, but you're looking at--What?

Mr. KEHOE: Mine are solid blue bubbles. And I have another bottle here of pink bubbles...


Mr. KEHOE: ...and they're like Christmas balls, they're solid evenly colored bubbles that float through the air like Christmas balls. And when they land on a surface, if I give it a little rub, the color actually fades away.

MONTAGNE: Those bubbles soon to enter the booming bubble market have been written up in Popular Science magazine, although Tim Kehoe is not a trained scientist. In fact, the toy inventor's kitchen was his lab. And during 11 years of experiments, he left a trail of melted pots, stained countertops and lost cleaning deposits.

Mr. KEHOE: When I first had the idea, I thought `Oh, colored bubbles. You know, why hadn't this been done?' And I thought I would pop down to the store the next day and pick up a bottle of food coloring or some Kool-Aid or Jell-O--in fact, I went and did that--and mix it in with some bubbles and I'd go off and become a millionaire and have the world's first colored bubbles. But it turns out it's much harder than that. The color would run to the bottom of the bubble for the first two years of my experimenting.

MONTAGNE: So food dye didn't work. What was your next thought?

Mr. KEHOE: No. Well, you know, I wanted--I knew it had to be something that was going to be safe for kids. So I tried all the food products, you know, anything that had color. I'd melt Fruit Roll-Ups, I tried all kinds of things. None of that worked. So I went on to paints and dyes and just went to the art store and started--you know, I'd save up some money and then go in and try a bunch of things and I'd do this at nights and on the weekends, and, finally, after reading some patents and playing around with some different soaps, I started to realize that there was a relationship between the color and the soap. They really had to like each other. In order to get it to suspend evenly, the two had to connect and bond.

MONTAGNE: When you tried out things that already had color in them, what did you think? You thought `Well, maybe I can extract the color'?

Mr. KEHOE: Yeah, I used to try all kinds of things like that. You know, you'd boil it out and try to get the essence of the color or use different plants and natural materials to try to get some color. And none of it worked. You couldn't get any of to make a bubble. It really came down to the process and adding the right ingredients in the right order for the exact amount of time at the exact heat. If you varied for even 30 seconds or put things in one before the other, you didn't get anything.

MONTAGNE: Did you ever find yourself working with something that was dangerous?

Mr. KEHOE: Yeah, absolutely. I'd comb through patents and I would send away for chemicals and my degree and background is in marketing, so I--you know, at this point I really didn't know a whole lot about chemistry, particularly the outside of bubbles. So I would send away for things like nitric acid and things that I knew you could never actually end up using in the bubble. But I just wanted to see if I could get them to work. And those were fascinating bubbles that actually eat right through your clothes.

MONTAGNE: I mean, it's funny because thank goodness you didn't actually try and bottle them and sell them, but...

Mr. KEHOE: No, they were horrible things. And I had fires in the house. There was one point we filled the house with these horrible fumes and had to evacuate the kids. It was a lot of trial and error. And so after literally thousands of experiments, I ended up with the world's first colored bubble. It was a blue bubble. I went to the bathtub and for the first time actually a colored bubble came out. And I got all excited, made some other colors, and called the toy companies, and they all loved it. They said, you know, this is--and they'd known about it; everybody had talked about colored bubbles and wanting colored bubbles. And nobody had been able to do it. Nobody could suspend the dye evenly. And I'd gotten that far and they were just beautiful. They were amazing. But they stained. I mean, they were horrible. When they landed on a carpet or they landed on your clothes, or your skin, they were there forever.

MONTAGNE: And that meant toy companies weren't interested in the product. So let's fast-forward a few years. Tim Kehoe hooks up with some investors and to his glee they come up with $1/2 million. So he goes back to his old notebooks, follows the instructions, can't re-create the bubbles. Panic sets in. So...

Mr. KEHOE: So I went to this art store in town and I bought one of everything that had color. The bill was like $996. I went back, I stayed up all night, tried everything, none of it worked. So I go to another little art store here in St. Paul and I bought some pigments, and I hadn't used pigments in years because traditionally, the pigments are particles and they wouldn't blow a bubble. But I found a unique one and I tried it and went home and they made beautiful bubbles, the best bubbles I'd ever seen. And it landed on my skin and it washed off. I couldn't believe it. So I grabbed the kids, cover them in bubbles and it washes off their clothes. So I thought `This is great.' We did a focus group testing with 25 kids, rented these gigantic bubble machines, filled the air with colored bubbles. And the mothers, their jaws just dropped. And it wasn't that they are excited, it was that we were covering their kids in this color. And even though I told them it was going to wash out, they were still just terrified. We needed to go clear.

We met with a bunch of scientists. A lot of them told us you couldn't color a bubble. I'd show them a photo and they'd say, `Oh, no, you can't. It's impossible.' I said, `Well, we've done that. Now we need the color to go away.' We ended up finding a PhD chemist who said, `Yeah, we can do that.' About six months later, he ended up with the world's first color-disappearing bubble. And as we developed the technology we realized that it had a lot of implications outside of bubbles. Spray cans that kids can spray on the wall and it goes clear. But we've been approached by all kinds of other industries to look at it for indicators as to where things have been sprayed. Maybe you wanted to know where you sprayed your crops. We've even had a call to look into tumor detection capabilities with the dye. So it's--from colored bubbles, it's really taken a wild ride and some twists and turns to possibly one day saving lives.

MONTAGNE: Well, I would--or the world.

Mr. KEHOE: Or the world.

MONTAGNE: ...(Unintelligible)...

Mr. KEHOE: That's right.

MONTAGNE: ...we're talking but if you--we could just move back to the--to that little--those little blue and pink bubbles, I think you have there on the table...

Mr. KEHOE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Is there any chance that this bubble will burst? I mean, that it's a set--it's a done deal?

Mr. KEHOE: What a horrible thing to say. No.

MONTAGNE: This now is a done deal? These bubbles will be coming out not for Christmas...

Mr. KEHOE: They'll be out for spring. No. But, you know, really, in a lot of the country, bubble-blowing season starts in the spring, certainly here in Minnesota. But we filed an ungodly amount of patents and we're taking it pretty serious and every major retailer has approached us.

MONTAGNE: And the name invented for Tim Kehoe's colored bubbles? Zubbles. Out next year.

(Soundbite of music, bubbles)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.