Tuesday, May 17, 2011

hook and loop

One of my favorite things was patented the year I was born: Velcro. Here's the story from Writer's Almanac:
It was on this day [May 13th] in 1958 that Velcro was patented. Velcro was invented by Georges de Mestral, an electrical engineer from Switzerland. Mestral was a born inventor — he applied for his first patent when he was 12 years old, for a model airplane.

Besides being an engineer, Mestral enjoyed mountain climbing, and in 1941 he went on a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps. He hiked through patches of burdock. Burdock is a thistly plant whose roots are used in cooking, especially in Asia; but the plant spreads its spiny seeds by latching them onto anything or anyone passing by. When Mestral got home, he was picking the burs off his dog’s coat and his own clothes, and he wondered how burdock was so effective. He put the seeds under his microscope, and saw that each bristle was a tiny hook that was able to catch in the loops of clothing. He realized that by copying burdock he could create a way to simply bind materials together.

Most people Mestral told about his "hook and loop" cloth thought that his idea was stupid, but he kept on with it. It took him 10 years to get it right. With the help of a talented weaver, he was able to make a workable product, but the cotton didn’t hold up to wear. Then he discovered that nylon sewn under infrared light made the perfect set of loops — but that meant sewing hundreds of loops per inch, a slow and inefficient task. Eventually, he was able to mechanize the whole process, and 10 years after his walk with his dog, he applied for a patent for his invention: "Velcro," which combined the French words velour (which means velvet) and crochet (which means hook).
Velour and Crochet. It even has great etymology. But mostly, it's about the burdock. How the most commonplace, even irritating, item can spark creativity.

No comments: