Who Made Velcro?
In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral returned from a hunting trip with burs clinging to his pants and tangled in his dog’s coat. When de Mestral examined the seedpods under a microscope, he marveled at how they bristled with hooks ingeniously shaped to grasp at animal fur. “Most people stop at the ‘Oh, that’s cool, that’s what nature does,’ ” says Janine Benyus, a pioneer in the field of biomimicry, the science of studying natural models — anthills and lizard feet, say — to solve human problems. “He probably had to go back a lot of times,” she adds, “and really look” at those hooks. A bur, of course, can clamp onto wool socks with surprising force, and — even more amazing — once you pry it off, it can stick again and again, like glue that never wears out. But how to imitate this trick with human-made stuff? Eventually de Mestral learned to mold nylon into a fabric studded with tiny hooks or loops that acted like artificial burs.
When Velcro first arrived in America, it caused a sensation. In 1958, a syndicated financial columnist named Sylvia Porter announced that “a new fastening device” had so bewitched her that she spent days playing with it. “It’s on my desk as I type this,” she wrote.
As for Benyus, she hopes our future will be held together with detachable hooks. Myriad plants and animals use Velcro-like attachments, she says, and engineers are now studying nature to learn how to create a “super-Velcro” that would be strong enough to fuse the pieces of a computer or maybe even a car. She points out that super-Velcro offers a lesson in sustainability. “If we were able to put the parts of a computer together with gecko tape, or insect tape, we could send the computer back to the manufacturer, and they could disassemble it and reuse different parts or recycle it easier.” Benyus says. “Glue actually contaminates recyclables. We throw things in a landfill just because they’re glued together. Instead, we should take our machines apart and use the building blocks again.”...
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