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Recalling Buckyballs

The Buckminster Fuller-inspired magnets can't be sold, and shouldn't be owned, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Image: Phil Roeder/Flickr

July 12 was the 119th anniversary of the birth of futurist, architect, designer, and coiner of many pithy phrases Buckminster Fuller. He died after 87 years on Spaceship Earth, and there's really no concise way to sum up his legacy. You can spend literally days on YouTube watching Fuller documentaries and interviews, one of which stretches past seven hours long. Fuller was someone who could chat with hippies, hold forth in little churches in Maine, and had a spherical molecule of carbon atoms named for him: buckminsterfullerene.

In opposition to their far-sighted inspiration, though, the toy Fuller inspired lasted only three years. “Buckyballs” were a rad, sciencey gift for the crafty and nerdy—a cube of little spherical magnets that you could shape into almost nothing, unless you were very crafty and nerdy, in which case other possibilities opened up. I believe I got my set as a gift for graduating college, and never made anything as cool as these people did:

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Image: Kurt and Becky/Flickr

Buckyballs were not, however, fun for all ages, which is why the Consumer Product Safety Commission is forcing the company that sold them to take them back and give everyone refunds.

The problem with these toys—ahem, I mean—these desktop magnets, is that if you swallow more than one of them, they have a distinct possibility of pinching onto your guts and becoming lodged in there.

Image: Sonny Abesamis/Flickr

Sure, swallowing a magnet seems like a self-evidently bad thing to do, and as I recall my Buckyballs had many warnings telling me not to, in addition to some age restriction. But when USA Today explained how it happened to one 12-year-old in California, and it sort of made sense:

In March 2012, Sabrina Lopez of Bakersfield, Calif., was simulating she had a tongue piercing at school when she swallowed four of the Buckyballs pieces a friend brought to school. Lopez, 12, was hospitalized for six days and required two surgeries to remove the balls from her bowels, her mother, Betty, told USA TODAY two years ago.

In response to dozens of cases like Lopez's, wherein children swallowed little magnets and needed surgery to remove them, the CPSC sued Maxfield & Oberton to recall Buckyballs and Buckycubes in spring 2012. As the CPSC convinced Amazon, Urban Outfitters, and other retailers to stop carrying Buckyballs and comparable products, the company complained that they were being unfairly targeted and rallied to get the public's support via a “Save Our Balls” website and advertising campaign, before the company was dissolved in December 2012.


An ad in a DC-area paper directed at President Obama, stated, “We do not understand why our products, marketed exclusively for adults and with so few injuries, have suddenly been raised to the very top of the CPSC’s action list.”

It's a fair point, considering ballpoint pens have a body count. But perhaps this quote from Bucky himself is instructive: “Our brains deal exclusively with special-case experiences,” Fuller wrote in Operating Manuel For Spaceship Earth. “Only our minds are able to discover the generalized principles operating without exception in each and every special-experience case which if detected and mastered will give knowledgeable advantage in all instances.”

This was a brain-based decision, it would seem then, rather than a mind-based one. In any case, it's easy to see why the special cases got the attention in this case.

“The injuries that we have seen are like a gunshot wound to the gut with no sign of entry or exit.” said Scott Wolfson, the agency’s spokesman told the Washington Post in 2012.

So yesterday, a much less exciting looking website went up for you to return your Buckyballs. It is not nearly as nice or as fun as the Save Our Balls site. In fact, it's one of the plainest websites I've ever seen.

Well, I've got a message for the CPSC: Out of my cold dead bowels—that's how you're getting my Buckyballs. Or legit, if you can find them, just leave the check on the table; I haven't been able to find them since I moved.