What just might be a mildly fun toy to you and me is, for the people who make them, their livelihood. The perhaps overzealous efforts of a government agency to protect consumers might strike you as distasteful, but for those who make the toys, it's not only a war on their profession, it's a war on "Warnings and Consent, Democracy," and, in this case, "beautiful spherical magnets."
Such is the manifesto of the last remaining maker of what are popularly known as Buckyballs. Posted today, months after the Buckyballs brand gave up the ghost and the day after Magnicubes did the same, Zen Magnets has now proclaimed its intentions to fight for the right to make and sell tiny spherical magnets "until the end." The founder of the Denver-based company, Shihan Qu, posted a strongly worded letter, wherein he vowed "to continue this legal, awareness, and lobbying battle, until our very last drop of cash-flow blood."
For a brief moment starting in 2009, the Buckminster Fuller-inspired magnet sets were THE museum gift shop gift. Shapes, chains, and (my specialty) a wad of magnets, could all be built with the sets. They were pretty frustrating, gotta line up those polarities just so, but very futuristic and cool. There was an almost therapeutic quality to playing with them—the sound, the shine, the attention.
But then the Consumer Product Safety Commission came in to grab Americans by their magnetic sphere sets. Citing dozens of cases of multiple magnetic balls being swallowed and pinching people right in the guts, the CPSC called for a ball recall, leading to the Buckyball company being dissolved in the fall 2012, and a website was set up to facilitate refunds for all.
Appalled, Zen Magnets tapped its resolve, and yesterday called for this problem to be solved in court in December. Their statement is dramatically worded, no doubt, but reading it, I came to see their point of view.
Their argument is basically: Buckyballs aren't inherently dangerous—not that being inherently dangerous makes a product unsellable. They can be misused, which is why the manufacturer is willing to put warnings on them, but the educational and aesthetic merits of the magnets more than justify the risk, given that, there really isn't one.
They have a point. There are plenty of things sold that children shouldn't put in their mouths. The CPSC itself has pointed out how personal and home cleaning products poison millions each year, but hasn't called for a ban on them. And Zen Magnets is the first company to get an administrative complaint from the CPSC without any recorded injuries. Why are Buckyballs getting singled out—and why Zen Magnets?
"There is absolutely no replacement or substitute for magnet spheres, nothing has the same dynamic tactile abilities that magnet spheres do," the manifesto states. "We can sleep without regret, knowing that as the last company standing, Zen Magnets fought for what was right."
It's a principled stand, alright. Do they have a stake in not letting magnets be banned? Well, sure. But is the CPSC acting out of line? That's what the hearing will decide.
One thing's for sure. "We will combat the CPSC's magnet prohibition until triumph, or until a glorious death of insolvency on the legal battlefield. At the very least, we'll have one more holiday season of availability."
The letter ends with the popular saying "Magnets must be respected but need not be feared." The same, it seems, shouldn't be said for the heads of magnet companies.