Friday, December 18, 2009

Velcro - An Unintentional Discovery

Often erroneously believed to have been developed as part of the American Space programme, Velcro was actually invented in 1948 by a Swiss engineer who had just been walking his dog. When George de Mestral got home, he noticed that both he and his pet were covered in burrs (the seed-sacs of plants that typically spread themselves by hitching rides on the fur of passing animals). Suddenly an idea struck him. Ignoring the dog, he plucked one of the offending items from his cloth jacket and raced to his microscope. Under magnification, the infuriating secret of the burr was revealed. It was covered with hooked strands, and these, he realised, would inevitably cling to the coat of a beast that rubbed up against it. In the case of his jacket, Mistral reasonedthat the hooks formed an even firmer bond by slotting into tiny loops in the fabric.

Mistral knew at once that the burr principle could be used to develop a revolutionary fastening device, but it took him several years to perfect his invention. The main difficulty was getting the ‘loop’ side of the fastener right (the ‘hook’ side was more straightforward). The solution turned out to be to sew the loops from nylon under infra-red light.

In 1951, Mistral applied for a Swiss patent for an early version of his fastening system. He christened it ‘Velcro’ (the word is a combination of ‘crochet’ and ‘velour’) and opened his first factory the following year. In 1955, he obtained a US patent for hisinvention, and two years later Velcro went into production in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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