When a Swiss engineer stumbled into a bunch of burs, it became a delightfully sticky situation for the world:
THE BUR TRADE
You surely know the famous story about George de Mestral's 1941 hunting trip in Switzerland - while walking his dog in the mountains, he accidentally brushed up against some cocklebur plants, and by the time he got back home, dozens of the round, spiky seeds were clinging to his wool trousers (and his poor dog's fur).
What you don't know is how hard it was for de Mestral to translate that natural stroke of genius into man-made one. He quickly figured out why the seed were so sticky by examining them under a microscope - the spikes each ended in tiny hooks that grabbed onto fabric and fur and wouldn't let go. (Photo: Francoise and Charles de Mestral, aps.org)
But it wasn't until 1952 that de Mestral made a serious effort to mimic the cockleburs' hooks using different types of fabric. He quit his day job and raised $150,000 in venture capital, an enormous sum at the time. He also joined up with a textile weaver from Lyon, France - the only weaver who thought the idea would actually work. The pair's first attempt, using cotton, was a failure. But nylon, sewn into tiny hooks under bright infrared light, worked much better. He dubbed it "Velcro" after velvet and "crochet," the French word for "hook."
JUST PLAIN STUCK
De Mestral seemed to be on his way to a huge success, and large-scale production finally began in the mid '50s. But the fabric didn't actually make it to market until a decade later, and when it did, it flopped. It was extremely useful but also extremely ugly - a hard sell given that de Mestral mostly envisioned it being used on clothes. High-end designers wouldn't touch the stuff.
The only group that found it appealing was the burgeoning aerospace industry - astronauts didn't want to fiddle with zippers and laces while trying to get in and out of their spacesuits, and they also needed a way to keep their various personal items and food from floating away in zero gravity. (The association with NASA later popped up in the 1997 movie Men in Black, which short-shrifts de Mestral by claiming Velcro was actually invented by aliens and adapted for Earth use.)
By the time people figured out that Velcro could also be hugely useful on everything from kids' shoes to watchbands, de Mestral's patent was close to expiring, and factories in Taiwan and Korea were churning out similar stuff. Today, if you use Velcro as a generic term, you'll make some Velcro executives very unhappy. The word has been Xeroxed, or if you prefer, Kleenexed - the company would much prefer that you use the generic "hook-and-loop" unless you're referring specifically to their brand.
De Mestral, by the way, wasn't just the inventor of Velcro. He also received a patent for a toy plane at age 12 and went on to design a hygrometer (which measures air humidity) and an asparagus peeler not unlike the kind that's "As Seen on TV."
From Big Hair to the Big Bang, here's a Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything by our friends at mental_floss.
Did you know that paper clips started out as Nazi-fighting warriors? Or that cruise control was invented by a blind genius? Read it all in the book!