For most inventors, the source of inspiration is often a dark and delicate mystery. Walter Hibbs, though, can pinpoint the exact moment he got the idea for Seat-Down. It was 3:00 on a January morning in 1984. He was awakened by his wife's scream. "She had fallen into the potty, all the way into the water," he recalls. "I heard a lot of foul language coming from the bathroom."
He knew it was his fault; he had left the toilet seat up again. "I'm simply not retrainable," the 49-year-old confesses. "So I sat around and thought about the problem." Hibbs had plenty of time for contemplation, since he was about to liquidate his gas compressor business.
After about six months and 10 drawings, the Houston-based Hibbs hit upon the design for an automatic toilet-seat closer. Seat-Down operates the same way as a hydraulic door-closer, using a cylinder with a piston rod coming out of it. It fits between the bottom of the seat and the floor and can be adjusted to take as long as three and a half minutes before it closes the seat. The first prototype, finished two years ago, cost Hibbs $1,100 to make.
After surveying 500 women in a local shopping mall, he doesn't expect any problem selling it. "The initial response was that they giggled," he reports. "But they realized that there was a problem." More important, all of them said they would shell out about $30 for a solution.
Hibbs wrote to Sam Walton, the co-founder of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and succeeded in eliciting some interest. Wal-Mart may work with him on Seat-Down's marketing and packaging, said a buyer for the stores who asked to remain anonymous, but "we need to see the final product. If it looks good, we'll give it a try. To stay in front of the market, you always have to try new things."
Hibbs says the product, now patented, will be ready for store shelves this fall. He also hopes to begin selling Seat-Down through TV offers and newspaper ads. His goal? To capture 1% of the female population each year, selling about 100,000 units per month.
So what does his wife think of all this? Sadly, Hibbs reports, they are no longer married. "It wasn't because of this problem, though," he assures.