How we know so much about Velcro

"So there you have it — a guy goes into the woods, examines the burrs stuck to his dog, and voila! He invents Velcro. It's amazing and it's true!"

This is the story of Velcro: In 1948, a man named George de Mestral was walking his dog in the Alps in Switzerland. He noticed that burrs were stuck to his dog's fur. They were as also stuck to his socks, pants and jacket. Being curious, he looked at the burrs under a microscope. They were covered in tiny hooks. He realized that one hook by itself was not strong, but that lots of them together were very strong.

Inspired by the hooks on the burr, Mestral thought that maybe he could invent a new type of fastener to be used instead of metal zippers. He set out to invent a material that has hooks on one side that connect with loops on the other. It was difficult and took seven years. He tried working with other materials like cotton, but none of them worked. Finally, he discovered that nylon could be used to make the strong hooks. Finally satisfied, in 1955 he patented Velcro — which is a combination of the French words "velour" (velvet) and "crochet" (hook).

Velcro was an immediate success. Today we use it to fasten and attach many things, including sneakers, school binders, arts supplies, camping equipment and clothes.

The story of Velcro is one of the most famous examples of something called biomimicry, which basically means "copying nature." When inventors, engineers and designers use biomimicry, they look at the cool powers and properties of plants and animals and try to copy them for human purposes. Here are a few other examples:

  • A sporting goods company created a swimsuit design based on a shark's skin to help Olympic swimmers move more quickly through the water.
  • An auto company designed an aerodynamic car based on the design of the tropical boxfish: the boxfish's face is small in proportion to its overall length, and its streamlined surface encourages air to move over it.
  • Researchers are studying the gecko (a lizard that can climb walls and ceilings without falling off) to see what it is that helps a gecko's feet to stick to and climb smooth surfaces. Their hope is to create a new kind of sticky tape. Imagine, they might invent Spiderman gloves!
  • Engineers designing buildings are studying ancient trees to understand how their deep root systems have helped them to stay standing over hundreds and hundreds of years through lots of storms.
  • Engineers are studying the desert beetle to learn how the design of its wings and back allow it to capture drops of water from desert fog. If they can create material that copies this special ability, they hope to use this material to help people, in dry areas with little ground water, collect water for drinking.
  • Airplanes are probably one of the best-known examples of biomimicry — birds inspired their design.

Check out these Web sites. (That's how we learned all of this!):