There is little as gratifying as a 5-year-old’s deep breath and mighty blow to snuff birthday cake candles or as mortifying as child saliva spewing across the frosting surface like water through a garden hose mist nozzle.
That’s why University of Virginia graduate and Richmond resident Mark Apelt invented the Blowzee, a sanitary way of extinguishing birthday cake candles without extinguishing adult appetites.
“That’s pretty much how it happened,” said Apelt, 44, who graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. “We were at a kid’s birthday party with some friends and the sun was coming through the window at just the right angle so that you could see all of the droplets fly through the air and all over the cake when the kid blew out the candles.”
It was not a pretty sight but it was just the kind of gross topic dads talk about while enjoying adult libations, and the type of chat that leads to new ideas.
“It started out as a joke, really. It was pre-COVID and a bunch of us gathered at a local bar, just some dads meeting up for a beer,” Apelt recalled. “We were all there at the party and we talked about what it’s like when kids blow out the candles because we all saw the spit fly.”
The dads agreed that the layer of slaver spurting across the cake’s confectionary coating was “ew”-inspiring.
“I mean, you like cake but suddenly you’re like, ‘no thanks, I’m on a diet’ after you watch that,” Apelt laughed. “We talked about how we don’t do that with any food other than birthday cake. I mean, you don’t do it with hamburgers. No one finishes cooking a hamburger and then blows on it and says, ‘here’s you hamburger.’ OK, you blow on soup, but you blow on your own soup.”
On the other hand, turning down a slice of a child’s birthday cake would be a violation of the Father Code of Conduct and a serious breach of parental etiquette. So Apelt and friends joked about how something should be invented to protect adults without ruining the kids’ fun.
“I thought there had to be something, some device already on the market, but there really wasn’t,” he said. “Then, once the pandemic hit, we had a lot of time to think about it and a reason to work on the idea.”
That’s when he came up with the Blowzee. It’s a hand-held, battery-included, propeller-driven device that senses a child’s exhaust and responds with a quick burst of ambient air aimed at the flame atop the celebratory confection with enough power to fell the fire.
“There’s a little electric sensor in there so when you blow into it, you’re activating the sensor and it switches on the fan and that creates enough clean air flow to blow out the candle. Meanwhile, the air you blow circles around and comes back toward you,” Apelt explained. “The blown air never gets near the cake, but the propeller has enough power to blow out the candle. Problem solved.”
Getting to the solution was not that easy.
“The first idea was trying to create a mask with a filter, but it was hard to blow hard enough to put out the candle,” Apelt said. “Then I thought about a CO2 cartridge, but that was way too powerful. You’d have cake on the walls.”
Next came a device similar to a labrophone or vuvuzela, an odd, straight horn-like contraption akin to the annoying tooters employed by soccer fans.
“That didn’t work well at all,” Apelt laughed. “And it was just ridiculous looking. It also made an annoying sound. When we got closer to the Blowzee concept, we thought about putting some noisemakers in it to entertain the kids, but it’s annoying enough to a parent after about 20 minutes of listening to them blowing on those things without adding noisemakers.”
With a lot of time at home, Apelt began narrowing down his design. He posted his plan on Upworks, an online network of independent professionals who work on individual projects.
“The nice thing about the pandemic is that people were staying at home,” he said. “We were looking for some kind of way to get the kids’ exhale to run the propeller and we found a guy in Michigan who is a retired electrical engineer. He looked at the plans and said, ‘I could do that’ and came up with the schematics.”
Then came the search for production.
“We found a manufacturer in China, which is the only place that had the sensor we needed, and they agreed to make it for us,” he said.
Apelt also enlisted his 12-year-old son for a scientific experiment to determine if the spittle spritzing from a birthday blowout is, indeed, unsanitary.
“I know about petri dishes and how to set that experiment up, so the 12-year-old blew on the dish and we let it grow,” he said.
And grow it did.
“It’s clearly not hygienic,” he said.
With his device in hand, and a website that includes the disturbing petri dish pictures, Apelt took the Blowzee to some birthday parties.
“We didn’t know what they’d think about it, but we tried it out on some kids at a party and they loved it,” he said. “It’s more like a toy for them. We thought we’d sell one to someone who’s having a party but it turns out they’re buying multiples and putting them in those gift bags they give to everyone who attends the party.”
Now the device is available online and through Ukrops bakeries. And, while he’s not getting rich off his invention, it’s pretty cool to see it for sale.
“It’s been fun. It’s been great to see it out there, but a lot of it was the fun of just making connections all across the world and people offering to help figure stuff out,” Apelt said. “It’s been great.”