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Random Genius: Velcro


How a hike through the woods produced a modern wonder.

Pity the poor souls who cringe at the sound of Velcro tearing. They must do it fairly often.

In the last 5 decades, the reusable, non-adhesive fastener has become as ubiquitous as zippers and buttons, but can be used in many more capacities. From a messenger bag strap to your infant's diaper, you'd be hard-pressed to go through the day without coming into contact with Velcro.

It all began in 1941: Swiss engineer George de Mestral was returning from a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps when he noticed several burrs clinging to his wool trousers and the dog's matted fur. He examined the burrs under a microscope and discovered their needles didn't come to points, but rather ended in tiny hooks which perfectly grasped fabrics, hair and fur. De Mestral concluded that this process could be replicated if the hooks and loops could be easily manufactured.

Though seemingly simple, Velcro's development from idea to patent would take de Mestral roughly 14 years.

De Mestral's concept was dismissed by everyone until he pitched the product to a weaver in Lyon, France. Together, they developed 2 workable strips made from cotton, but found that the material wore out too quickly.

Minyanville's Random Genius The solution: synthetic fibers. The pair learned that the resilience of nylon was perfect for the hooks and loops. They saw that nylon, when sewn under a hot infrared light, would produce small, durable hooks that would easily attach to looped nylon thread.

However, finding the best way to mechanize the process proved very difficult. Through trial and error, De Mestral went through several ways to cut the hooks and loops at a certain length so that they would line up and cling effectively. The precise method took almost 10 years to perfect.

De Mestral's invention was finally patented in Switzerland in 1955. He dubbed it Velcro: A combination of the French words velours, meaning "velvet," and crochet, meaning "hooks."

It's surprising that something that eventually became so successful would have such a hard time getting off the ground. Anticipating high demand, de Mestral filed patents throughout Europe and North America. Although he insisted Velcro would be highly beneficial, clothing designers initially balked at its ugly appearance.

Only when NASA adopted the product for their astronauts' uniforms did Velcro finally begin to enjoy widespread acclaim. It spread to skiing and wetsuits, allowing one to dress and disrobe with a greater ease. Polyester was added to strengthen the filaments. Velcro soon found its way onto every possible surface and in every imaginable use.

Its distinctiveness and popularity, however, pose one problem for the company: In the world of proprietary eponyms, Velcro reigns supreme. As a currently held trademark used to describe the product it manufactures, the Velcro name is dropped far more often than is the generic term "hook-and-loop fastener" - a branding malapropism that even the Velcro company forbids its employees from using. Instead, they must refer to their product as "the Velcro-brand hook-and-loop fastener."

Which likely slows company meetings down by at least 20%.
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