It’s April the 2nd, the day in 1948 when one of the most amazing inventions ever, the hook-and-loop fastener Velcro, was first introduced to the world.
Velcro was invented by George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, who came up the idea after investigating the way thistle burrs stick to clothing. Studying the burrs through a microscope, de Mestral noticed they had tiny hooks that gripped on to the yarn loops in clothing. This led him to develop a new type of fastener consisting of two sides, one covered with tiny, flexible hooks, and the other filled with small, hairy loops. When pressed together, the hooks catch on to the loops, holding the pieces together. Pulling the pieces apart, the hooks give way, releasing the loops with a ripping sound. This process of using nature as inspiration for a man-made invention, is called ‘biomimicry‘ or ‘biomimetics’.
Over the years, Velcro has been manufactured with progressively more durable materials – the first examples were made of cotton, later to be replaced with nylon and polyester. For critical applications, highly durable teflon velcro has even been developed.
The range of applications of velcro is almost without limit. Besides its extensive use as a clothing fastener (often replacing zippers), it can be used wherever things need to be temporarily, and repeatedly, attached and taken apart. A surprising, and very important, use of Velcro has been in the space industry, where Velcro fastening is used extensively to hold items in place in the near zero gravity conditions in space.
Closer to home, and in a more everyday application, Velcro is also an unmissable teaching aid, especially in early childhood education when it is a great way for kids to tag objects to a board etc. A friend of mine who teaches visually impaired students swears by it, saying that she cannot imagine her teaching environment without the ingenious fastener.
From education to outer space, a truly great invention indeed.