In 1941, George de Mestral, while hunting in the Jura, with his son and dogs, noticed how the plant burdock stuck with microscopic hooks to his trousers and to the ears of one of his dogs. Fifteen years later the strong-willed Vaud handy man had turned his observation into something that would become a household name.
He carried his hunting trip observation around in his head for ten years before realizing it could be used as an alternative to a zip, an earlier american invention bought and perfected by a Swiss.
Then, with the help of two friends, one a local engineer, he hatched a plan to turn the idea into reality. As a first step, Mestral, a hydraulic engineer, went to a sewing school in Lyon, a city famous for producing fine silk for the French royal family. There, with the help of a senior professor, and a supplier that sent the wrong thread, he came up with the first prototype. A patent was filed in the US in 1952.
This is when the challenges started, said Mestral. In an interview in 1961 with Swiss television (RTS) he said: invention is only 5 percent of a project. The other 95 percent is the sweat required to make it happen.
After scouring the globe and failing to find anyone who could realize his invention, he contacted the the Müller family, who had a weaving business in Frick, in the Swiss canton of Aargau, not far from Basel. Four years later, in 1956, they had industrialized a manufacturing process that involved heating threads of nylon, a product developed by Dupont in 1935. This led to the filing of a further patent in 1957.
Shortly after, the company Velcro SA, started producing the now familiar clingy product in Aubonne, Switzerland, on the shore of Lake Geneva.
Initially, sales were slow. Then NASA noticed the product in a Readers Digest article, and decided to use it for the Apollo moon missions. After that it became a household name and sales skyrocketed.
With a smile, he concedes to an RTS interviewer, that Swiss caution meant Switzerland only became interested in the product after its international success.
Speaking from a company workshop in Aubonne at the age of 77, he said his manual engineering training was far more useful to him than his academic engineering studies. And, he said he would remain an inventor until his last breath.
Georges de Mestral was born in Saint-Saphorin-sur-Morges on 19 June 1907. He died in Commugny, Switzerland on 8 February 1990 at the age of 82. In 1984, he told RTS that he never made a fortune, as his patent expired in the 1970s. Instead he said he did alright: “J’ai gagné honnêtement ma vie”.
The name comes from the French words: VELours, meaning velvet or pile, and CROchet, which means hook. The brand is now owned by a multinational headquartered in the UK.