Wendy’s Week In praise for the Invention of Velcro
He was born to Albert de Mestral, a civil engineer, and Marthe de Goumoëns in Colombier, near Lausanne, Switzerland. De Mestral designed a toy airplane at age twelve and patented it. He attended the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. After graduation in 1930, he worked in the machine shop of an engineering company. He went for a hike and when he came back he discovered that his dog was covered in burs that had attached themselves to its fur. He then worked on inventing hook and loop fasteners for ten years starting in 1948. In 1955 he successfully patented hook and loop, eventually selling 60 million yards (about 55,000 km) a year through a multimillion-dollar company.
George was married three times: to Jeanne Schnyder in 1932, Monique Panchaud de Bottens in 1949, and Helen Mary Dale.
On his father’s death in 1966, de Mestral inherited the family home at Colombier, château Saint-Saphorin-sur-Morges.
De Mestral died in Commugny, Switzerland, where he is buried. The municipality posthumously named an avenue, L’avenue George de Mestral, in his honor. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999 for inventing hook and loop fasteners.
.De Mestral first conceptualized hook and loop after returning from a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps in 1941. After removing several of the burdock burrs (seeds) that kept sticking to his clothes and his dog’s fur, he became curious as to how it worked. He examined them under a microscope, and noted hundreds of “hooks” that caught on anything with a loop, such as clothing, animal fur, or hair. He saw the possibility of binding two materials reversibly in a simple fashion, if he could figure out how to duplicate the hooks and loops.
Originally people refused to take him, and the idea, seriously. He took his idea to Lyon, which was then a center of weaving, where he did manage to gain the help of one weaver, who made two cotton strips that worked. However, the cotton wore out quickly, so de Mestral turned to synthetic fibers. He settled on nylon as being the best synthetic after, through trial and error, he eventually discovered that nylon forms hooks that were perfect for the hook side of the fastener when sewn under hot infrared light. Though he had figured out how to make the hooks, he had yet to figure out a way to mechanize the process, and to make the looped side. Next he found that nylon thread, when woven in loops and heat-treated, retains its shape and is resilient, however the loops had to be cut in just the right spot so that they could be fastened and unfastened many times. On the verge of giving up, a new idea came to him. He bought a pair of shears and trimmed the tops off the loops, thus creating hooks that would match up perfectly with the loops.
Mechanizing the process of the weave of the hooks took eight years, and it took another year to create the loom that trimmed the loops after weaving them. In all, it took ten years to create a mechanized process that worked. He submitted his idea for patent in Switzerland in 1951 and the patent was granted in 1955. De Mestral expected a high demand immediately. Within a few years, he received patents and subsequently opened shop in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada. In 1957 he branched out to the textile center of Manchester, New Hampshire in the United States.
De Mestral gave the name Velcro, a portmanteau of the French words velours (“velvet”), and crochet (“hook”), to his invention as well as his company, which continues to manufacture and market the fastening system.
However, hook and loop’s integration into the textile industry took time, partly because of its appearance. Hook and loop in the early 1960s looked like it had been made from left-over bits of cheap fabric, an unappealing aspect for clothiers. The first notable use for Velcro® brand hook and loop came in the aerospace industry, where it helped astronauts maneuver in and out of bulky space suits. Eventually, skiers noted the similar advantages of a suit that was easier to get in and out of. Scuba and marine gear followed soon after.
De Mestral unsuccessfully tried to update his patent; it expired in 1978.
Velcro holding cables together
Born in the tiny town of Saint-Saphorin-sur-Morges in 1907, George de Mestral filed his first patent at the age of 12, for a toy airplane. “He was driven to invent,” says Fraser Cameron, president and CEO of the modern-day Velcro Companies. But it wasn’t until his mid-30s that de Mestral hit upon the idea that eventually took over the world — though it would take more than two decades for his invention to finally stick.
In 1941, de Mestral was on a hunting trip and noticed that both his pants and his Irish Pointer’s hair were covered in the burs from a burdock plant. Where many might have brushed them off in irritation, de Mestral decided to study the burs under a microscope, more out of curiosity than sensing a new business opportunity. “He was not a guy who was inspired by business,” says Velcro CEO Cameron. “He was inspired by science. If you need to know how something works, sometimes you just need to know. However he was constructed, he just really needed to know.” What de Mestral saw were thousands of tiny hooks that efficiently bound themselves to nearly any fabric (or dog hair) that passed by.
De Mestral realized that if he could create a synthetic form of this fabric, it would allow for a new way to fasten things, a middle ground between buttons, zippers, and simply sewing stuff together. His idea was to take the hooks he had seen in the burs and combine them with simple loops of fabric. The tiny hooks would catch in the loops, and things would just, well, come together.
But it was far easier said than done. De Mestral took a tour of fabric manufacturing plants in Europe. The first six fabric companies were, at best, skeptical of the idea and said it couldn’t be done — mass-manufacturing the loops was easy enough, but the tiny hooks were more difficult — they needed to be both flexible enough to separate from the loops when pressure was applied, yet firm enough to keep things together otherwise. “You have to have a fiber you can weave into a shape and then it’ll save that shape,” Cameron explains.
But eventually he found a manufacturer in Lyon that was combining relatively tough nylon with cotton — a fabric with the ability to hold its shape that was exactly what he was looking for. Using the material, he was able to create, by hand, the same small microscopic hooks he’d seen on burs and attach them to a separate piece of cloth with tiny loops. He applied and received a patent for his invention in 1955 and took out a $150,000 loan to work on his project. He also created a company for manufacturing the product: Velcro, a portmanteau of “velvet” and “crochet” (literally, “hook” in French).
But while de Mestral had found his material and proven that it would indeed work, the problem was that he could only make the hooks by hand — mass-manufacturing remained beyond his grasp. Running out of money, de Mestral holed up in a tiny cabin in the village of Commugny in the Swiss Alps, trying to devise a solution. “The hooks are very tricky,” says Cameron. “You weave them like a loop, but you have to cut them at a very precise angle, and it’s very difficult to do.”
Finally, de Mestral hit on using a modified version of something like a barber’s clippers. With the ability to keep the angle of the cut precise, he could finally build out a loom that would allow him to mass-produce his hook-and-loop fasteners — nearly twenty years after his initial brainstorm.
Still, Velcro’s fastener system was not an instant hit when it came to market in the early ‘60s. “The problem was people thought ‘What the hell is this stuff? Why would I even bother?’” says Cameron. “When you have a breakthrough product, it can be difficult to figure out how you use it.” Clothing manufacturers shied away from it, and it seemed like de Mestral’s invention, like so many others, would simply be relegated to the status of something interesting, but ultimately useless.
Then NASA came along. Looking for a way to keep objects attached to walls while floating in orbit, the agency discovered Velcro’s fastener system. Suddenly, de Mestral’s invention wasn’t an oddity — it was space age. It was, well, cool. It began to show up in clothing in the mid-‘60s, including high fashion — French fashion legend Pierre Cardin became obsessed with the stuff. And de Mestral’s invention was officially a hit.
The Velcro Companies take pains to remind the public that Velcro is not an actual product but instead a company name—a company that makes far more than the hook-and-loop fastener so closely associated with it. Velcro continues to follow in de Mestral’s footsteps, taking inspiration from the natural world and applying it to industrial uses, whether it’s gecko feet or shark teeth. De Mestral passed away in 1990 in Commugny, the same Swiss village where he had his breakthrough. He had long ago sold the rights to his creation to the Velcro Companies, and continued to work on other inventions, including a very successful asparagus peeler. But de Mestral will always be linked to Velcro’s hook-and-loop fasteners, which started out as an annoyance on his pant leg, and made it all the way to the moon.
George de Mestral was born in Switzerland in 1907. Trained as an engineer, de Mestral was inspired to invent Velcro® after examining burrs clinging to his clothing after a hiking trip. He began developing the fabric in 1948 and completed work in 1955, patenting his invention the same year. De Mestral died in Commugy, Switzerland, on February 8, 1990.
George de Mestral was born in Saint-Saphorin-sur-Morges, Vaud, a small town bordering Lake Geneva near the city of Lausanne, Switzerland, on June 19, 1907. A gifted student of science, de Mestral studied electrical engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. He worked as an engineer in a machine shop after his graduation.
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Invention of Velcro®
In 1948, de Mestral happened upon his most enduring discovery while hiking. He and his dog returned from a hike covered in burrs from the plants along the trail. De Mestral examined the burrs under a microscope, studying their structure. He began working to develop a synthetic fastening system that mimicked the hooks and loops of the burrs.
George de Mestral, 82, the engineer who got the idea for Velcro fasteners after wondering why burrs stuck to his socks, died Thursday at his home in Commugny, Switzerland.
His wife told the Associated Press that Mr. de Mestral had been sick for about three weeks and died from complications of bronchitis and other lung problems.
Widely used as a replacement for buttons, zippers and other fasteners, Velcro found early uses in the space program. Light, durable and immune to the rust that may damage metal devices, Velcro has found many other applications in industry, in clothing and on footwear.
The history of the product, with its high-tech image and characteristic crackling sound, has been traced to 1941. Mr. de Mestral, a hunter and outdoorsman as well as a mechanical engineer, was struck by the tenacity with which cockleburrs clung to the hair of his dog and the wool of his socks.
Under a microscope, he found at work the hook-and-loop principle on which Velcro is based.
Hook-shaped projections in the burrs grasped loops in hair or wool. The name Velcro comes from a combination of the first syllables of velvet and crochet. The latter word is French for hook.