The following article featuring TETRATOPS™ appeared in the Business section of the New York Times in the Patents column on

May 8, 2000


Geodesic Spinning Tops; Church Playhouse; Vacuum for Tiny Toys


When Kurt Przybilla was growing up in International Falls, Minn., he and his three sisters looked forward every summer to the day their father would put up the geodesic jungle gym in their back yard.

That jungle gym inspired a lifelong fascination with Buckminster Fuller, the architect and futuristic thinker who invented the geodesic dome, said Przybilla, who is now a 35-year-old English teacher in New York.

A few years ago, Przybilla was wandering around New York's Chinatown when he stumbled upon some small acrylic balls at a store called Industrial Plastics. it occurred to him that he could use them to make models of the structures associated with Fuller.

Przybilla took the balls home, glued them together into different configurations and set them on his desk. At first he experimented with stacking them into towers. Then one day he picked up one of his models and set it spinning.

Though it had no pointed edge, it twirled like a top. Thus was born Przybilla's newly patented invention, which he describes as an omnidirectional top.

"It doesn't have a single stem like a traditional top, which spins on only one axis," Przybilla said. "It can spin on any of its spheres."

To many people, Przybilla's tops might look like molecular models, or perhaps those clusters of blown-glass grapes in grandmother's fruit bowl. But when Przybilla looks at one of his tops, he sees its inner geometric configuration.

When one imagines the centers of the spheres as dots connected by lines, a cluster of four balls describes a tetrahedron, a three-dimensional shape with four triangular faces. Przybilla's tops also come in clusters of six (an octahedron, with eight triangular faces when the imaginary dots are connected), 12 (an icosahedron, with 20 faces) and 13 (a cube octahedron, which despite its extra ball has only 14 faces).

Przybilla says that his tops can help children develop an intuitive understanding of physics or chemistry in much the same way that an understanding of geometry can grow out of playing with square, triangular and rectangular blocks.

"Kids don't have to be presented with the ideas or theories behind the shapes to absorb the information that the shapes give them," said Przybilla, who says that the tops illustrate the primary structural systems of the universe.

"People are taught to think in squares and cubes, even though nature does not use blocks to build," he said. "All stars and planets and atoms are spherical. Understanding how spheres relate helps to understand how nature builds."

Hasbro Inc. considered licensing his invention, Przybilla said, but the big toymaker concluded that the tops would not fit in its product line. So Przybilla created a company, Tetratops. He has been demonstrating and selling the tops on New York streets as well as through a Web site,

A basic set of four tops sells for $19.95. It comes with a set of trading cards that offer statistical information on a given top's structure, and such observations as the fact that the icosahedron resembles a soccer ball and that an octahedron sliced in half makes a pyramid.

Trading cards? Does Przybilla really think that children will trade Tetratops cards of octahedrons, icosahedrons and cube octahedrons the way they trade Pokemon cards of Pikachu, Snorlax and Charizard?

"I think the educational aspect is exciting," Przybilla said. "Companies sell kids short by giving them junk. If you give them something good, they'll absorb it."

Przybilla, who continues to search for a financial backer, received patent 5,996,998.

A Church Playhouse With Sound System

Teresa Sallee, a former day-care director, and her husband, the Rev. Jack Sallee, have patented a playhouse that resembles a miniature church.

The Sallee church playhouse features a steeple, stained-glass windows, pews and a sound system that plays hymns, sermons and wedding music.

Although Sallee is a minister in the Church of God of Prophecy, the Sallees said their playhouse was nondenominational. "It is a toy that could be used in all Christian preschools," Sallee said. The Sallees, who live in Wyandotte, Mich., hope to license their invention to a manufacturer.

They received patent 6,053,792.

Vacuum Attachment Collects Tiny Toys

Tony Vandenberg, a father of three in Charlotte, N.C., grew tired of picking up tiny toys like Lego pieces and Barbie accessories. So he invented a vacuum attachment that diverts such treasures to an easy-to-empty box when they are sucked up.

"All the small dirt particles go up and into the vacuum through vent holes in a vacuum draft panel," Vandenberg said. "But the big pieces hit the panel and drop into the box."

Vandenberg received patent 6,048,249.

Patents may be viewed on the Web at or may be ordered through the mail, by patent number, for $3 from the Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, DC 20231.


©2000 The New York Times

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