Bubbles, Zubbles, Toys and Troubles

Geek Culture

They’re bubbles. And they’re in color. And they wash out, rub away or plain evaporate after splattering.

Describing Tim Kehoe’s invention – Zubbles – is simple. The 15-year journey from concept to this summer’s product launch was anything but.

“If you said to me, ‘You’re going to spend a quarter of your life playing with bubbles,’ I’d have said you were crazy,” the 39-year-old St. Paul, Minn. inventor and father of five said. “You’re so afraid of that day you wake up, and somebody else is on the cover of a toy magazine with colored bubbles.”

Image: John BoothImage: John Booth

Image: John Booth

Not a fear most of us could identify with, maybe, but then again, most of us aren’t marketing-degree-holders turned Mad Toy Scientists, either.

It’s been four years since Tim’s idea and quest earned him a Popular Science feature and the magazine’s subsequent Best of What’s New Grand Award in 2005, and though at the time the bubbles’ release seemed imminent, what seemed right around the corner … wasn’t.

“We all thought we were done at this point, and then it became apparent that what we did at beaker scale just wasn’t something that could easily be done on a large scale,” Tim recalled.

He credits Robert Balchunis with turning the production process into a workable, scalable model, and as of July 2009, considers the Zubbles finally finished.

(The Zubble invention process also sparked another project entirely: Little, Brown and Company is set to publish Tim’s first book, “The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow,” in November. Echoing one of Tim’s real-life mishaps, the title character manages to accidentally dye himself blue from head to toe.)

Tim shipped me a bottle of each hue to give them a whirl, and even my middle-school-age daughter was excited the day they showed up in the mailbox.

It really was neat seeing that first colored bubble take shape, ordinary and unnatural at the same time. The Zubbles wands seem designed to create clusters of smaller bubbles which are more vibrant and dense with color. We later used some standard bubble wands with larger rings and did get some nice bigger bubbles, but along with those came a corresponding color fade. (And though the Zubbles web site includes photos of bubbles in other colors, for now there are just the two.)

We found that the Presto Pink – it seems closer to a deep magenta, actually – made the more consistently impressive bubbles as far as maintaining the color’s intensity. In bright sunlight or with bubbles bigger than about an inch in diameter, the Blazing Blue seemed washed out, although the darkness of the dye did make for some dramatic swirls in the larger bubbles. (Photos from our backyard testing are here.)

And truthfully, there’s a certain joy to be had in watching the bubbles pop and splatter on clothes, plants and patio chairs. The impermanence of the splashes was as advertised: Some of the smaller patches simply faded, others rinsed out of T-shirts with a quick swish under the kitchen faucet.

Now I’m thinking of other ways to try them out: I think my nephew’s got a bubble rocket toy which would look neat shooting skyward on Zubble exhaust. And I wonder how much the color gets diluted if you add some drugstore glycerin to make giant Zubbles?

I also wonder what Tim’s got up his sleeve next.

Wired: Simple and groundbreaking and a testament to one man’s refusal to accept clear, boring bubbles.

Tired: Well, they are just bubbles, and at $14.95 for a two-bottle pack, significantly pricier than most.

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