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Velcro (Public Radio Commentary)

March 23, 2004

A public radio commentary

In this winter season here in the states, I have renewed appreciation for my wife's greatest talent: Choosing coats. When my wife picks out a coat everything from style to utility is perfect. The material is ideal for keeping the wind out, every fastener is perfect: a drawstring for the waist and neck, a zipper and snaps for the front, and for the cuffs, Velcro. I'd argue that without Velcro my wife couldn't buy a perfect coat.

Velcro's the invention of a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral who came up with the idea while walking with his dog in the woods. de Mestral observed that his wool socks and his dog's fur were covered with burs. When he got home he examined the burs under a microscope and saw that their barbed, hook like seed pods meshed with the looped fibers in his clothes. Here, he thought, is an ideal fastener. His idea met with resistance and even laughter, but de Mestral, with help from a weaver and a loom-maker, perfected his "hook and loop fastener." He worked to make a synthetic material that duplicated the burs clinging to his wool socks.

By trial and error, de Mestral realized that nylon, when sewn under infrared light, formed tough hooks for the bur side of the fastener. The difficulty of attaching hundreds of tiny hooks to cloth tape held up de Mestral's work for eight years, and then mechanizing the production process of weaving 300 hooks and loops per square inch was another hurdle. Finally, by 1955 his "hook and loop fastener" was patented under the name Velcro, which he formed from two French words velour and crochet - velvet and hooks. The shear number of places that Velcro now appears is astonishing.

In medicine: The two pumping chambers of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart were fastened with Velcro, and how were blood pressure cuffs held together before Velcro?

The success of every Space Shuttle flight depends on it: Everything in the interior - food packets, tools, even astronauts at times - are held down by Velcro.

And, of course, it's held up David Letterman, the late night talk show host. He donned a pair of coveralls made of Velcro hooks, bounced from a trampoline into a wall covered with Velcro loops, where he stuck. Now that the Velcro company has covered everything from outer space to talk show hosts, what's next?

Maybe our stomachs. They've discussed edible Velcro: Think how useful this would be to keep closed a burrito or the pancakes of moo shoo pork.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises