Dear Straight Dope:
I think Velcro is fantastic. My question is who thought of it, when, and how?
The explosion of knowledge today is such that even Cecil can’t keep track of it all. We turn instead to a great book, Allyn Freeman and Bob Golden’s Why Didn’t I Think of That? Quoting:
In 1941, George de Mestral and his Irish pointer were hunting game birds in the ancient Jura mountains of Switzerland. All day long, he had to pull off sticky cockleburs clinging to the dog’s coat and his own trousers. De Mestral marvelled at the tenacity of these hitchhiking seedpods that were difficult to disentangle from animal fur or woolen cloth. That evening, this Swiss engineer placed a burr under a microscope and was stunned to see that the exterior of the seedpod was covered with masses of tiny hooks that acted like hundreds of grasping hands. De Mestral wondered whether it would be possible to mimic nature and create a fastener for fabric. When he succeeded he gave the creation a memorable name by splicing together the first syllable of two French words: velour (velvet) and crochet (hook): Velcro.
Paraphrasing the next few pages: it took De Mestral eight years to copy the burr-clasping system. In 1952, he quit his engineer’s job and got $150,000 in loan to perfect the Velcro concept. He experimented with nylon, but he couldn’t cut hooks out of nylon. At the end of his rope, he went off to the mountains to clear his head. At a local barber shop, he watched the cutting and sliding motions of the barber’s shears and was inspired.
In the mid-50s, he started production of the hook-and-loop fabric. He anticipated hundreds of uses – replacing zippers and laces and buttons, and enabling arthritic seniors and clumsy toddlers to get in and out of clothing with ease. The debut in the 1960s was disappointing because it looked cheap, so was considered ugly and impractical, and wasn’t used on high-quality clothing. Style is everything in the garment biz.
Velcro was taken up by the aerospace industry as an aid to getting in and out of bulky space suits. Unfortunately that just reinforced the idea of limited utilitarian use. Only the makers of children’s clothing and sports apparel saw possibilities, watching astronauts detach food pouches from walls and stand upright with their boots linked to the floor in weightless space. David Letterman put Velcro in the national spotlight when he attached himself to a hook-and-loop wall (a two inch square piece of Velcro will hold a 175 pound person hanging on a wall.)
So skiing, scuba, and marine gear … Velcro wallets and book bags for kids … watchbands, blood pressure cuffs, and child-safe dart boards … and then the barroom pastime of tossing midgets onto hook-and-loop walls. By 1978, De Mestral’s patent expired and low-cost imitations from Taiwan and South Korea flooded the market. There was fear that the term “Velcro” might lose its trademark status and become generic (similar to the fate of Kleenex and Band-aid), so Velcro USA uses “hook-and-loop” as the generic term.
De Mestral offered some advice to executives: “If any of your employees ask for a two-week holiday to go hunting, say yes.”
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.