Was your first attempt made on your front doorstep or in the locker room at school? Did your teacher tell you about it or was it very much down to your parents to bear the frustration of your first stab at … tying your own shoe laces?
Until the late 1970’s and early 80’s, after the simple comfort of the slip on, the buckled shoe was the next step in footwear for children. It was fairly straight forward to push the end of the thin leather strap into the metal square; the fiddly bit was pushing the pin that was attached to the square, into the hole of the leather strap. However, the real challenge came with shoe laces, with some schools insisting their older students had lace-up shoes and not buckles.
But all that changed thanks to the discovery made by Swiss electrical engineer and inventor George de Mestral.
George was a child genius, born on 19 June 1907 to Albert, an agricultural engineer and Marthe; by the age of 12, George had already designed and patented a toy aeroplane.
In his adult life, De Mestral enjoyed a bit of hunting and it was during one of his return trips in 1941 that he noticed how difficult it was to remove the burdock burr from his trousers. On closer examination he discovered the seed was covered in tiny hooks that were able to attach themselves to anything with a loop. This inspired him to create a product that is now so widely used, you wonder how we managed without.
By replicating the characteristics of the burr, he covered the surface of a strip of fabric with minute hooks and another with much smaller ‘hairy’ loops, then pressing the two surfaces together, the hooks would ‘catch’ the loops and the two surfaces would bind.
It took a further 10 years before de Mestral perfected his method of production, greatly aided by that other great invention of the time: nylon; and in 1951 he submitted his idea for patent in Switzerland.
But what to call this wonderful new product?
Using a combination of two French words: velours (a stretchable knitted fabric) and crochet (hook), De Mestral patented his hook and loop fastening device in 1955 under the brand name Velcro.
In the early days, the idea didn’t take off, but with the herald of space travel, it soon proved a valuable addition to space exploration, making life much easier for NASA astronauts getting into and out of their space suits.
It is now used widely including the motor industry, space travel, shoes and nappies. There is even a growing market in the corporate entertainment world with ‘Velcro jumping’.
Rather surprisingly the patent for the product expired in 1978 and that lead to the market being flooded with various types of cheap reproductions. There are currently 300 trademark registrations in over 159 countries.
It was the escalation of this that lead the true Velcro companies to take action to protect the reputation of their product, the trade name and to create a single corporate identity across the globe.
They started an international campaign in November 2010 to highlight the fact that the name Velcro relates to the group of companies and the brand name of their product i.e. not the product itself and from January 2012, they will have just one international company logo.
However, I think it is too little too late for whilst ‘Velcro’ is the registered trade mark for their product and not the name of the product, (the correct terminology is a ‘hook and loop fastening product’), in the same way that cellophane and nylon became generic names, it is unfortunately an inevitable consequence for such a product.
So whilst 2011 celebrates the 60th anniversary of de Mestral submitting his idea for patent in Switzerland in 1951, it also celebrates the 70th anniversary of when he returned from a simple hunting trip that changed the way of the world.
So the next time you go shopping for shoes, make sure you ask for shoes that have a ‘hook and loop fastening’ device, woe betide you if you should call it ‘Velcro’!