The U.S. Army has a problem with Velcro. It's too noisy. And its little loops get clogged with dust from the Afghan and Iraqi deserts. The so-called "hook-and-loop" fastener was added to standard issue uniforms in 2004, but a plethora of complaints from dissatisfied soldiers led to a year-long investigation, which in turn led to an official decision to remove Velcro from military uniforms starting this August. "Taliban attacks come and go," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in a June 15 USA Today story, "but dust is constant in Afghanistan."
Velcro is the brainchild of Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer who, in 1941 went for a walk in the woods and wondered if the burrs that clung to his trousers and dog could be turned into something useful. After nearly eight years of research (apparently it's not so easy to make a synthetic burr), de Mestral successfully reproduced the natural attachment with two strips of fabric, one with thousands of tiny hooks and another with thousands of tiny loops. He named his invention Velcro, a combination of the words "velvet" and "crochet," and formally patented it in 1955. Though the first Velcro was made out of cotton, de Mestral soon discovered that nylon worked best because it didn't wear with use. Early news reports (such as one that appeared in TIME in 1958) described the product as a zipperless zipper which, while accurate, sounds a little strange to us now. It seems there just weren't that many removable, re-useable all-surface fasteners back then.
It's important to note namely, because we're legally required to do so that Velcro is the name of a company, not a general term for the scratchy fastening system we all know and love. "Not all hook and loop fasteners are genuine Velcro brand products!" Velcro's company website exclaims. "It is not the generic name of stuff that fastens shoes, clothing, and hundreds of other things." Except, of course, that it is. No one says "hook-and-loop fastener," just as no one says "re-sealable zipper storage bag" instead of Ziploc. (It's an example of metonymy, a rhetorical figure of speech in which a brand name is used to refer to an entire category of product. But we digress.)
Velcro got a huge image boost from NASA in the early 1960s when Apollo astronauts used it to secure pens, food packets and equipment they didn't want floating away. Hospitals affixed Velcro to everything from blood pressure gauges (it's on the band that nurses strap to your arm) to patient gowns. It showed up in cars (underneath floor mats) home decor (as fasteners for slipcovers and drapes), even on airplanes (seat cushions used as flotation devices). Originally available only in black, the tape's aesthetic appeal expanded when the company began offering it in multiple colors. A 1959 fashion show at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel displayed everything from Velcro diapers to Velcro golf jackets to stylish society matrons; a New York Times report declared it "the end of buttons, toggles, hooks, zippers, snaps and even safety pins." But even with colors the stuff was too ugly, and for a long time it was relegated to athletic equipment.
In 1968, Puma became the first major shoe company to offer a sneaker with Velcro fasteners. Other companies caught on (most notably Adidas and Reebok) and by the 1980s, every child in America seemed to own at least one pair of those three-strap Velcro wonders. By then, the Velcro company's original patent had expired and companies in Europe, Mexico and Asia were making cheap knock-off versions. Perhaps this is the reason why Velcro fights so hard for its name: these days, anyone can make a hook-and-loop fastening product, but only one company makes Velcro.
In 1984, David Letterman interviewed Velcro USA's director of industrial sales while wearing a Velcro suit. When the interview was over, he launched himself via trampoline onto a Velcro wall. A few years later, a New Zealand bar owner made headlines when he provided patrons with Velcro wall-jumping equipment and held "human fly" contests in his watering hole. By 1992, Velcro jumping had spread to the U.S. The game never gained national momentum, but every once in a while it shows up at carnivals and fairs basically, anywhere you might also find a Moonwalk.
You might assume that uses for such a commonplace product would be exhausted by now. But Velcro has proven so versatile that every few years someone uses it to invent something new. Toy companies didn't think up the Super Grip in which a tennis ball is thrown and caught with a paddle-shaped velcro mitt until 1991, 50 years after Velcro's invention. And just recently did techies affix the adhesive to the back of their coveted iPads to turn them into desk-, wall- and car-mounts.
Velcro entered the Army market in 2004 via the Army Combat Uniform, a lighter wash-and-wear version of the service's original battle dress attire. But soldiers hated the Velcro and complained incessantly their name tags fell off, the loops got dirty and wouldn't fasten, and the loud ripping sound caused by freshly opened pockets made it hard to hide from enemies. After an exhaustive survey of 2,700 soldiers, several prototypes and a lot of military know-how, the Army finally came up with a simple solution to its Velcro problem: buttons.