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February 9, 1990: Death of George de Mestral

George de Mestral, holding a strip of Velcro
Photo Credit: Francoise and Charles de Mestral

George de Mestral, holding a strip of Velcro®
Sardonic talk show host David Letterman delighted millions across the country when he attached himself to a wall of Velcro as part of his late night antics, inspired by a quirky barroom pastime of tossing midgets onto similarly constructed walls. Today, Velcro is everywhere, rivaling the zipper in its ingenuity and the extent to which it has permeated our daily lives. But it wasn't your Uncle Milton (or Frank, or Harold, or any number of distant relatives that seek to lay claim to its origins) that invented this unique little gadget. It was a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral.

Born in June 1907 in Lausanne, Switzerland to working class parents, as a young boy de Mestral was fond of both the great outdoors and coming up with new inventions. In fact, at the age of 12, he designed a toy airplane and received his very first patent for it. By working odd jobs, he paid for his studies at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, focusing on engineering. After finishing school he took a job in the machine shop of a Swiss engineering company, which still left him sufficient leisure time to pursue his first love of inventing.

In 1948, de Mestral took a two week holiday from work to go game bird hunting. While out with his Irish pointer in the Jura Mountains, he was plagued by cockleburs, which stuck relentlessly both to his hunting pants, and to his dog's fur. It was so difficult to disentangle the tenacious seed pods that de Mestral was intrigued, and examined them under a microscope. He noticed that the exterior of each burr was covered with hundreds of tiny hooks that "grabbed" into loops of thread or fur. Inspired by Nature's ingenuity, he conceived of a similar man-made fastener based on the design.

He conferred with numerous fabric and cloth experts in Lyon, France-then the worldwide center for the weaving industry -but most were skeptical that the idea would work. In his early attempts, the loops were too big for the hooks, or vice versa. But one weaver shared de Mestral's love of invention and, working on a small loom by hand, managed to weave two cotton tapes that, when pressed together, fastened just as strongly as the burrs did. Eventually de Mestral discovered that nylon, when sewn under infrared light, formed nearly indestructible hooks, and this eventually replaced cotton as the primary material.

De Mestral called his invention Velcro, from the French words VELours (meaning "velvet") and CROchet (meaning "hook") and applied for a patent with the Swiss government, which was granted in 1955; he received subsequent patents in Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Italy, Holland, Belgium, France, Canada and the US. The trademark name Velcro was officially registered on May 13, 1958. By then, de Mestral had quit his job with the engineering firm and obtained a $150,000 loan to perfect the concept. He established his own company, Velcro S.A., in Switzerland to manufacture his new hook and loop fasteners, which contained 300 hooks and loops per square inch.

Since mass production proved problematic with existing manufacturing technology, de Mestral designed a special machine to duplicate the hooks and loops. By the end of the 1950s, textile shuttle looms were able to mass produce the product. Introduced in 1960, Velcro was not an immediate success, but it was adopted by the aerospace industry as an aid to getting in and out of bulky space suits. But then manufacturers of children's clothing and sports apparel realized the possibilities, and soon the company was selling over 60 million yards of Velcro per year, making de Mestral a multimillionaire. He died on February 9,1990, and was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 1999.

From a purely scientific standpoint, Velcro belongs to a class of materials called polymers, which contain many chemically bonded units which are themselves bonded together to form a solid. Traditionally made of out of nylon, Velcro can be made out of other materials as well, such as plastic, stainless steel and silver, which provide unique properties, such as flame retardance and the ability to withstand higher temperatures. Today, Velcro is used in sneakers, backpacks, jackets, wallets, watchbands, blood pressure cuffs, and toys like child safe dart boards. It even helped hold a human heart together during the first artificial heart surgery.

But Velcro is more than just a convenient fastener for consumer goods. It is also an excellent example of the emerging field of biomimicry, which studies models and concepts found in Nature, and uses them as inspiration for new designs and processes to solve very human problems. Sonar is another example: the technology was inspired by the way whales and dolphins navigate in water, and how bats employ echolocation by emitting high pitched sounds to navigate in the dark. Some scientists are studying spider silk, which is ten times stronger than steel would be at that thickness, in hopes of imitating those properties. The ultimate goal of biomimicry is to create products, processes and policies that are well adapted to life on Earth in the long term.

Further Reading:
• Official Velcro web site: http://www.velcro.com

• Freeman, Allyn, and Golden, Bob. Why Didn't I Think of That? Bizarre Origins of Ingenious Inventions We Couldn't Live Without. John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Roberts, Royston. Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. John Wiley & Sons, 1989.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette