Scott Barnhill thinks adults carry around way too much plastic - credit cards, grocery store bonus points cards and cards used for workplace access, among others.
So Scott, an 11-year-old fifth-grade honors student at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, sketched an idea for a "Security One Card," which he says could eliminate the need for multiple cards.
Sound neat? The U.S. Patent Office thought so and issued Scott a patent approval for his idea in April.
Here's an example of how Scott's idea would work: You have a grocery store club card, a frequent-buyer card and a video-store card, plus a credit card. Instead of carrying four separate cards, you could have just one by having magnetic strips added to your credit card with the permission of the issuing merchants.
The magnetic strips could be added to any plastic card, even a blank one. Companies could input the data at their establishments if they obtained one of the devices used to affix magnetic strips. For instance, you could ask a video store to add a strip onto your Visa card to allow rentals if the store agreed and you had permission from Visa.
Scott, who has many hobbies, including designing Web sites, got the idea at age 9.
"I was in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, and we were checking into the Four Seasons Hotel," said Scott. "My Dad got the room key card, and I wondered, why not combine it? I think the hotels are wasting money with the key cards."
The way Scott sees it, instead of using a hotel-issued key card, guests could simply insert their credit cards as a way to gain room entry if a magnetic strip was added to the credit card at the hotel. At checkout, the strip would be removed.
Another reason Scott thought about having multiple strips on one card, he said, was the many cards his father carries.
"He has cards he has to scan to open doors at his office, etc." said Scott, the only child of Gregory H. and Lisa Barnhill. "This way it could be all in one. You give the person the card and they input the information."
Scott wasn't thinking about a patent when he initially sketched his idea in his hotel room that day in Las Vegas. "Actually, my Dad said it could be patentable, and I'm like, `What's a patent?' " Scott recalled.
With experience in investment banking, Gregory H. Barnhill recognized the value of a patent. He recently retired as managing director of institutional equity sales at Deutsche Bank AG - formerly Alex. Brown & Sons - after a 27-year career and is now a partner and senior adviser for Brown Investment Advisory & Trust Co. in Baltimore.
Also an avid sailboat sailor, Barnhill played a prominent role in bringing the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race to Baltimore and Annapolis.
The elder Barnhill contacted longtime friend Guy H. Parr Jr., who referred them to a patent attorney.
Scott described the process, which included a five-minute presentation at the U.S. Patent Office, as "hard work" that took a while.
"I was nervous," Scott recalled, "because you want them to sort of like you, so they can help you out. You want them to have a good impression of you."
Accompanied by his father and patent attorney Kelly G. Hyndman, Scott said he thinks he did OK during the presentation.
Hyndman, who works for Sughrue Mion, PLLC in Washington, said Scott should expect the patent in the fall. First he'll have to pay a $650 government issue fee - half of the cost charged to companies with more than 200 employees - and a $300 publication fee.
In all, the patent, including legal costs, should cost less than $10,000, his father said.
Hyndman thinks Scott's idea might generate some interest from companies. "It could entice the public to carry their strip, to become a member of their club," Hyndman said. "There can be a commercial advantage if you get a customer to carry around your card. I'd be happy to carry the Food Lion card, for example, but I don't have room. For those people whose wallets are full, it'd be a big improvement."
Parr, a retired Lockheed Martin researcher who owns patents, said he thinks the idea will appeal to people with multiple cards.
"I have a ton of cards, including a library card," Parr said. "I would love to be able to relieve myself of some of those things."
As with most ideas, there can be a drawback or two.
If consumers convert several cards to one and then lose it, then they have multiple cards to replace, said John Hall, spokesman for the American Bankers Association in Washington.
"It's a very interesting concept, and I certainly admire his inventive nature," Hall said. "The required approval may be a road block. Quite frankly, I think the companies like people carrying their cards for brand reasons and for marketing reasons. But I think if it's something consumers want, the companies will support it. The technology just may not be there right now."
Scott's next step is a letter-writing campaign intended to generate support from major credit-card companies.
"I'm going to be writing letters to credit-card companies and ask if they can co-op with them and if they'll give me money every time someone puts a strip on the back on another card, or every time the idea is used," Scott said. "I'll write the letters and see what they say. If they say no, I'll ask someone else, another credit-card company."
Scott is hoping to make money from his patent long-term. He's already decided it would be better to collect royalties rather than sell the patent outright.
"The ATM person who invented that sold it outright, and if he'd chosen royalties he'd get like 2 cents for every transaction and he'd be a billionaire now," said Scott.