It's hard to imagine what we would do without Velcro, the versatile hook-and-loop fastener used in so many aspects of modern life-from disposable diapers to the aerospace industry. Yet the ingenious invention came about almost by accident.
Velcro was the creation of Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral, who had been inspired by a walk in the woods with his dog in 1941. Upon their return home, de Mestral noticed that burrs (from the burdock plant) had attached themselves to his pants and to his dog's fur.
De Mestral, an amateur inventor and a curious man by nature, examined the burrs under a microscope. What he saw intrigued him. De Mestral would spend the next 14 years attempting to duplicate what he saw under that microscope before introducing Velcro to the world in 1955.
Examining the Burr
Most of us have had the experience of burrs clinging to our clothing (or our pets), and considered it a mere annoyance, never wondering why it actually happens. Mother Nature, however, never does anything without a specific reason.
Burrs have long served the purpose of ensuring the survival of various plant species. When a burr (a form of a seed pod) attaches itself to an animal's fur, it is carried by the animal to another location where it eventually falls off and grows into a new plant.
De Mestral was more concerned with the how than the why. How did so small an object exert such a stronghold? Under the microscope, de Mestral could see that the tips of the burr, which appeared to the naked eye as stiff and straight, actually contained tiny hooks that can attach themselves to fibers in clothing, similar to a hook-and-eye fastener.
De Mestral knew that if he could somehow recreate the simple hook system of the burr, he would be able to produce an incredibly strong fastener, one with many practical uses.
Finding the "Right Stuff"
De Mestral's first challenge was finding a fabric he could use to create a strong bonding system. Enlisting the help of a weaver in Lyon, France (an important textile center), de Mestral first tried using cotton.
The weaver produced a prototype with one cotton strip containing thousands of hooks and the other strip made up of thousands of loops. De Mestral found, however, that the cotton was too soft-it could not stand up to repeated openings and closures.
For several years, de Mestral continued his research, looking for the best material for his product, as well as the optimal size of loops and hooks.
After repeated testing, de Mestral eventually learned that synthetics worked best, and settled on heat-treated nylon, a strong and durable substance.
In order to mass-produce his new product, de Mestral also needed to design a special type of loom that could weave the fibers in just the right size, shape, and density-this took him several more years.
By 1955, de Mestral had completed his improved version of the product. Each square inch of material contained 300 hooks, a density that had proven strong enough to stay fastened, yet was easy enough to pull apart when needed.
Velcro Gets a Name and a Patent
De Mestral christened his new product "Velcro," from the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook). (The name Velcro refers only to the trademarked brand created by de Mestral).
In 1955, de Mestral received a patent for Velcro from the Swiss government. He took out a loan to begin mass-producing Velcro, opening plants in Europe and eventually expanding into Canada and the United States.
His Velcro USA plant opened in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1957 and is still there today.
Velcro Takes Off
De Mestral had originally intended Velcro to be used for clothing as a "zipper-less zipper," but that idea was not initially successful. During a 1959 New York City fashion show that highlighted clothing with Velcro, critics deemed it ugly and cheap-looking. Velcro thus became associated more with athletic wear and equipment than with haute couture.
In the early 1960s, Velcro received a huge boost in popularity when NASA began using the product to keep objects from floating around under zero-gravity conditions. NASA later added Velcro to astronauts' space suits and helmets, finding it more convenient than the snaps and zippers that were previously used.
In 1968, Velcro replaced shoelaces for the first time when athletic shoe manufacturer Puma introduced the world's first sneakers fastened with Velcro. Since then, Velcro fasteners have revolutionized footwear for children. Even the very young are able to independently fasten their own Velcro shoes well before they learn how to tie their laces.
How We Use Velcro Today
Today, Velcro is in use seemingly everywhere, from the healthcare setting (blood pressure cuffs, orthopedic devices, and surgeons' gowns) to clothing and footwear, sporting and camping equipment, toys and recreation, airline seat cushions, and more. Most impressively, Velcro was used in the first human artificial heart transplantation to hold together parts of the device.
Velcro is also used by the military but has recently undergone some modifications. Because Velcro can be too noisy in a combat setting, and because it has a tendency to become less effective in dust-prone areas (such as Afghanistan), it has been temporarily removed from military uniforms.
In 1984, on his late-night television show, comedian David Letterman, wearing a Velcro suit, had himself catapulted onto a Velcro wall. His successful experiment launched a new trend: Velcro-wall jumping.
De Mestral's Legacy
Over the years, Velcro has evolved from a novelty item into a near-necessity in the developed world. De Mestral very likely never dreamed of how popular his product would become, nor the countless ways it could be used.
The process de Mestral used to develop Velcro-examining an aspect of nature and using its properties for practical applications-has come to be known as "biomimicry."
Thanks to Velcro's phenomenal success, de Mestral became a very wealthy man. After his patent expired in 1978, many other companies began producing hook-and-loop fasteners, but none are allowed to call their product "Velcro," a trademarked name. Most of us, however-just as we call tissues "Kleenex"-refer to all hook-and-loop fasteners as Velcro.
Georges de Mestral died in 1990 at the age of 82. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.