My mother has never worked for Ford or General Motors, but she none-the-less claims to have invented a number of automobile safety features. Or at least she believes herself to have imagined them long before anyone else did. Sadly, the patent office doesn’t know about it, and in any case does not have a register for fantastic ideas. If it did, the school notebooks of most 10-year-old boys would be worth a fortune.
I invented a shoe design once. Well, so I like to think. Renata and the four girls had gone off to Canada for a family occasion and I was left alone in Amsterdam doing exams for my economics degree. As I was waving them off at the airport I saw a child running around in a pair of those sneakers with flashing lights in the soles. A thought came to me that it would be really neat if, instead of always having the same blinking light in the sole, there was a platform at the back of the heel where one could plug in small interchangeable lighted figurines: a Christmas tree, a heart, the logo of a football team, etc.
Well, the thought would not leave me alone, so for about a week the house became a design studio as I took to creating the shoe I had been thinking about. I bought and dissected some of the standard blinking shoes I’d seen, bought another pair of new sneakers, wiring, lights, some hobby plasticine and paint. In the end I put together a very snazzy looking pair of sneakers and a couple of figurines that easily plugged into a small socket at the back of the heel. With every step, tiny lights in the figurine would blink on and off: stars on the Christmas tree, or a tennis ball on a racket.
I shipped the finished pair of shoes off to Adidas in Germany, along with a manipulative letter about how they had initially not seen the potential in the Predator football (soccer) shoe, and I hoped they wouldn’t make the same mistake with my shoe. In a few weeks I got a letter and my shoes back: “not interested”.
Undeterred, I sent the shoes to another major sporting goods manufacturer with European headquarters just outside Amsterdam (“hmm…what’s that swooshing sound I hear…?”). A few days later the phone rang: it was the head of the design department. My shoe had created quite a stir in the headquarters – what a great idea! And how clever to send in a completely functional mock-up! Would I mind if they sent the shoes off to international headquarters in the USA? Why no, I said, I wouldn’t mind at all.
A few weeks passed, and in the silence I began to ponder how much money I could expect to make from my “invention” – a thousand dollars? ten thousand? a hundred thousand? I had no idea. In the end an envelope arrived, postmarked Beaverton, Oregon. Excitedly I opened it and found inside a letter from an attorney. Instead of the expected promises of wealth and an invitation to come to Beaverton on the corporate jet, it contained a brief and very odd message: This is to advise you that (our company) has never received any sample shoe from you, and you can therefore make no claim against us.
I rang the friendly people at the European headquarters, but for some reason I was no longer able to get through. Repeatedly.
What happened to my shoes? I don’t know. I knew I had no chance whatsoever of ever getting them back, and no way of proving I had even made them. I guess I believe the big swoosh company patented them, but decided they were not marketable. I’ve never seen anything like them in the stores, by any manufacturer.
Oh well. It was really, really fun being so obsessively creative for a week. Reward enough for me, and a story for my grandchildren one day. Like mother, like son.