George de Mestral (1907 – 1990)
One of the, admittedly minor, accomplishments of a child in my day was to be able to tie their shoelaces in a way that secured the shoes to their feet and avoided the risk of tripping on trailing laces. Nowadays, rather like the ability to wield a pen, this skill has an air of the recherche about it, thanks to the ubiquitous presence of Velcro.
And who do we have to thank for this time-saving convenience? The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Swiss-born electrical engineer and inventor, George de Mestrel.
Having mastered the art of tying my shoes, I used to love exploring the fields and country lanes near my home in rural Shropshire. Often, in ploughing through the undergrowth, my socks and clothing would be covered by those sticky and very adhesive burrs from the burdock plant. It gave me some amusement when I got home, picking them painstakingly off, but I never paid them much more attention.
George, on the other hand, had a much more inquisitive mind. Returning from a hunting trip in 1941, he and his dog were covered in the burrs. He decided to look at one under a microscope and noticed that they were covered with thousands of hooks. If you brushed against a burr, these hooks attached themselves to you. In a lightbulb moment George wondered whether he could replicate this irritating wonder of nature in fabric to produce a fastener which would be easier to use than buttons and zips.
Realising that the hooks needed to attach themselves to something, he envisaged a piece of fabric with corresponding loops. Et voila, Velcro, a word coined from velvet and crochet (French for a hook).
George’s problems, though, had only just begun. He approached half a dozen fabric manufacturers around Europe to see if he could interest them in his idea. They were sceptical as to whether the hooks could be mass-produced and showed him the door. Eventually, George found a manufacturer in Lyon who, by using a combination of nylon and cotton, were able to come up with something that passed muster. George patented his idea in 1955, borrowed $150,000 and set up a company to market Velcro.
Still, the ability to mass produce the fastener eluded him until, nearly twenty years after his brain wave, he came up with the design of a loom which allowed him to cut the hooks at just the right angle to attach easily to the loops. George was running out of money fast and the sales potential of Velcro was affected by the simple fact that it was unusual and didn’t look good.
Velcro’s fortunes started to take off when the material was adopted by NASA. Its adhesive properties worked well in the zero-gravity of space capsules and a picture of astronaut Buzz Aldrin showing off his watch with its Velcro band to Neil Armstrong saw interest in the fastener rocket. It was now cutting edge and Pierre Cardin, the French fashion designer, became obsessed with it.
The age of Velcro was born.
Not that it did poor George much good. By this time, he had sold his rights to the product to the Velcro companies and when he applied to update his patent, which had expired in 1978, he was rebuffed. Now it was out of patent, the fabric fastener was widely adopted. Funny, that.
George had to content himself in the knowledge that Velcro was his brain child. His experiences didn’t dampen his inventive streak. He came up with a rather nifty asparagus peeler, always useful to have in the kitchen drawer, I feel.
For inventing Velcro and not profiting from its universal adoption, George de Mestral, you are a worthy inductee into out Hall of Fame.
Happy New Year!
If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone