There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Seven

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


Double Your Money – Part Thirty Seven

The Electric Sugar Company

It’s a bit like the old conundrum; which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was the curious saga of the Henry C Freund (his surname is sometimes Anglicised to Friend) a tale of a hoax which had money making potential or a piece of financial skulduggery with the hallmarks of a hoax? I incline to the latter but I will leave it to you to make your minds up.

It is a tale of what purported to be cutting-edge technology and the prospect of revolutionising an industry. At the time it cost about $10 to refine a ton of raw sugar but Freund claimed he had developed a machine which using some form of electrical charge would do the job at just $0.80 a ton. All he needed was some seed capital to help him construct a super-duper refinery.

Freund’s first of call was to the grand daddy of sugar refining, one Thomas Havemeyer, but he was put off by Freund’s rather eccentric way of trying to raise capital – he would neither explain how his machine worked nor demonstrate it in action. As Havemeyer commented later, “he positively refused to explain it or to give me an opportunity of seeing it, and I sent him away.”  But Freund was undaunted and sought other investors.

Anyone showing some interest was invited to attend a demonstration of the revolutionary machine. When they assembled in a room, they saw what appeared to be a machine, no bigger than a toy according to contemporary reports, covered in a blanket, a ploy adopted by Charles Redheffer with his Perpetual Motion machine. They were invited to walk around the marvel but not to inspect what was underneath the cover. When it came to the demonstration, they were ushered out of the room and treated to a cacophony of zaps, fizzes and clangs, analogous with an electric machine whirring away. When they were invited back into the room they found sugar of the purest quality where previously there had been raw, unrefined sugar.

Many signed up on the spot and before long there were enough investors to form The Electric Sugar Refining Company and 10,000 shares were offered in both America and England at $100 a go. They eventually rose to $625, fuelled by the demonstrations that seem to promise a revolutionary and cheap way of refining sugar.

Freund did equally well out of his investors. They gave him $40,000 to build the refinery and a further $180,000 to buy the machinery he claimed he needed. Freund remained circumspect about showing his machine, eventually conceding that he would reveal all when the refinery was built. He began living a lavish lifestyle, local shopkeepers commenting that he often flourished rolls of crisp new bills and asked for “change for a thousand.”

A combination of bad health and excessive drinking did for Freund in 1888 and following his death – there were accusations that the family kept his death quiet to prevent alarm amongst the investors – his wife, Olive, and her parents took over the mantle. The investors suspicions were fuelled when there was no discernible progress, a variety of specious excuses being proffered, and Olive audaciously asked for a further $75,000 in return for letting them into the secret.

One of the leading shareholders, an English lawyer named Cotterill, decided to confront Olive head on and when she hesitated when he asked her the blunt question, “Does your process turn the raw sugar directly into refined sugar?”  the game was up. The doors were broken down and all the investors found were barrels of raw sugar and machinery for crushing cube sugar.

What Freund seemed to have done was to bring refined sugar into his factory, purchased in small amounts from local grocers, and used this to convince his gullible investors that his machine was working. Oh, and there was a lot of raw sugar about.

News of the fraud got out, the share price collapsed and the company filed for bankruptcy. No amount of sugar, raw or refined, would sweeten this particular bitter pill. Astonishingly, Olive and her mother were acquitted of fraud but her stepdad, William Howard got 9 years’ hard labour in Sing Sing. Cotterill tried to sue Olive for $192,000 in 1892 but the jury took the view that he must have known about the fraud long before the company collapsed.

If you enjoyed this book, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

Santa Of The Week (2)

I went with the BoJs the other day to see Father Christmas. A jolly, avuncular sort of chap he was too and seemed to be the epitome of rude health.

Which is more than can be said for Valery Titenko, a well known actor in Siberia. The sixty-seven-year old was booked to play the part of Father Christmas at a party at a local kindergarten in Kemerovo last week and despite feeling unwell, being the trouper that he was, he fulfilled the engagement to avoid disappointing the children.

Alas, in full Santa regalia, after performing energetically in front of his audience of excited children, he suddenly stood still and fell backwards next to the Christmas tree.

Some of the children thought it was part of the act but adults realised that something was amiss. Despite being whisked off in an ambulance, Valery died shortly afterwards in hospital, having suffered a heart attack.

Father Christmas is known as Ded Moroz in Russia. Seems vaguely appropriate, methinks.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Theft Of The Week (3)

You’ve got to look on the bright side. With fewer pounding the streets looking for shopping bargains, there are probably fewer shop lifters around.

It never ceases to amaze me what people will be pinch as this rather curious, and strangely disturbing, tale from Green Bay in Wisconsin shows.

To deter would-be shoplifters, the Kwik Trip convenience store at 1712E Mason Street would display a cardboard cut-out of the local Police Chief, Andrew Smith.

Guess what? Last Sunday night it was stolen.

A police hunt ensued and information obtained led the officers to bang on a door in the 1000 block of Lime Kiln Road, asking to speak to a 28-year-old suspect. Perhaps sensibly, the suspect refused to answer the door but, thanks to his landlord, the replica of their Chief was recovered.

Or almost.

The cut-out was ripped up into a number of pieces and was minus the head. The search continues.

Whether the suspect had a grudge against the Chief is unclear but perhaps he has now as a citation for theft will soon be plopping through his letter box.

Baroque ‘n’ Roll

Jethro Tull – Birmingham Cathedral

It takes a lot to imbue me with the spirit of Christmas, it’s all this enforced jollity and good will to all men that gets my goat, but I must admit that when I left the architectural wonder that is Birmingham Cathedral, I felt at peace with the world. It’s amazing what a couple of pints in the Old Joint Stock and a cheeky large glass of wine in the cathedral’s nave can do.

This concert was part of the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour and for the last ten years or so the band have been putting on concerts in cathedrals around the country to celebrate Yuletide. This year it was Birmingham Cathedral’s turn. All monies raised went to the cathedral’s restoration fund and, in particular, towards the preservation of the wonderful Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. A worthy cause, to be sure.

One of two baroque cathedral in the country, St Paul’s being the other, and one of the smallest, standing cheek by jowl with the edifices of Mammon on Colmore Row, it made for an unusual and curiously intimate setting for a seasonal and more acoustically orientated Tull gig.

Ian Anderson has had to be inventive in recent years to mask his set of failing vocal chords but there was less need for such subterfuge as he wasn’t having to battle against the might and fury of a prog band at full throttle. A gentler, more relaxed style seemed to suit him better and perhaps this is the direction that he should move towards, if he feels the need to continue to tread the boards.

The band was helped out by the Cathedral choir on a few seasonal ditties which were given the Anderson twist. The set included a generous helping from the 2003 Jethro Tull Christmas album, was sprinkled with a few old favourites, Aqualung in particular was heavily bowdlerised to suit the surroundings, and seasoned with a couple of guest artists.

Violinist, Anna Phoebe’s version of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes and the breathtaking Celtic/Moroccan fusion that was Babouche were stand outs as was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, started off on the stentorian cathedral organ and finished off in style by Florian Opahle on lead guitar.

A splash of celebrity star dust was provided by Loyd Grossman who thrashed around on lead guitar as well as treating us to some words of wisdom from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I could easily have done without him but that may just be my taste buds.

Anderson knows how to put on a show and is beginning to acknowledge the effects of anno domini – he did seem to take more of a back seat and happier to let others share the limelight.

A lovely, uplifting evening and the Cathedral is a few steps nearer to getting those windows restored.

Hey! Santa! Pass us that bottle, will you?