Soap bubbles are fun. If you have ever watched a baby play with blown bubbles for the first time, or seen a dog snap at them, or given a child a bubble bath, then you know how magical they can be. How could you possibly improve on such a simple yet fascinating amusement? Tim Kehoe though it would be nice if they were colored. Kehoe is a toy inventor, and colored bubbles became his life's work. Going into the project, he didn't know it would take 15 years and $3 million to complete. You'd think it would be a simple matter of adding dye to the soap mixture, but there were problems.
Standard food coloring or dyes have no effect; they simply run down the sides of the bubble, creating a drop of color on the bottom. Other dyes can stain bubbles, but when they pop they also stain clothes, dogs and eyes, as Kehoe discovered during one accident. Other tests, including one for a bubble dye that washed out, didn't fare much better.
"I thought a washable bubble was a great idea," said Kehoe. "But the kids (of a large focus group) were covered head to toe in red dye. It looked like a scene from Braveheart."
In 2005, the Kehoe won the Grand Prize for Innovation from Popular Science for his Zubbles. At the time, we thought we'd be able to get our own Zubbles soon. Two years ago, we expected to see this product on the market any day. That was an optimistic promise.Â But he persevered, and now the product he calls Zubbles is available to the public. So far, the bubbles only come in pinks and blue, sold separately for $14.95. That's for a mere four ounce bottle. The latest dye technique makes your clothing pink (or blue) but is supposed to disappear in about 15 minutes. A commenter elsewhere provided the first customer review I'd seen, and said the bubbles are less than impressive; that the dye pools at the bottom of the bubbles as in earlier prototypes, and that the dye hadn't disappeared from her clothing, but it washed off her skin easily. You can see a video made by another customer here. Maybe for this one, I'll wait until they get the bugs worked out before I place my order.
In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chroniclewrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."
Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.
THE BEAN MYTH
In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.
Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.
When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).
The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.
It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.
“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”
Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.
There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)
You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.
LEGO sets are fun when you're piecing them together, and significantly less fun when they're fully assembled and gathering dust in your closet. That's not the case with the latest masterwork from builder Bre Burns. Her functioning LEGO pinball machine provides hours of entertainment even after the last brick has been laid.
According to the LEGO fan site The Brothers Brick, Burns built the initial model of the machine for the BrickCon LEGO exhibition in October 2017 and debuted an improved version at the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle in March. The 2.5-foot-tall machine consists of 15,000 blocks put together over the course of 200 to 300 hours. Even the castor steel balls, lights, motors, and sensors are official products from LEGO Mindstorms and Technic—collections originally designed for building and programming robots.
Burns dubbed her creation "Benny's Space Adventure" after the excitable classic blue spaceman minifigure from The Lego Movie (2014). The final design includes sound effects, a coin slot, a gumball dispenser, a mosaic of Benny, and a moving spaceship mounted on top of the machine.
Master builders have been using LEGO bricks for years to make items that work in the real world. In 2015, Italian carpenter Nicola Pavan used LEGO to build a fully functional guitar, and that same year a team of professional builders broke a world record with its 215,158-brick camper.