There is an urban legend, widely circulated, that NASA “invented” Velcro during the Space Race years of the early and middle Sixties. The truth is both more interesting — and more illuminating.
That word “invention” isn’t my favorite, since it seems to imply that a good idea materialized more or less out of nowhere. That’s just not so. Innovations rarely spring up out of nowhere. They usually have a source. Once we identify that source, we can get deeper clarity on the process by which we can create new breakthroughs of our own.
Innovations rarely spring up out of nowhere.
They usually have an alien source.
Here’s what is true: When NASA found itself in need of a reliable replacement for the zipper, which was not ideal for use by astronauts in a zero-gravity environment, its team leaders started looking around for alternatives. They didn’t need a better zipper; they needed a totally new and innovative solution. They found a company in Switzerland that offered such an alternative, and opted to give that company a contract in the early Sixties. That was the point at which the US space program started using the (now-ubiquitous) hook-and-loop touch fastening system known as Velcro on all kinds of things: spacesuits, pockets on other kinds of clothing, helmets, food and drink ports, and stuff like pens and packets that they didn’t want to see floating around the space capsule. Each design was highly customized by NASA engineers to the specific application the astronauts would be using. But NASA did not invent this technology.
The company NASA reached out to is still in operation today. It’s Velcro SA, a firm founded by a Swiss electrical engineer by the name of Georges de Mestral. It was de Mestral who invented Velcro back in the 1940s. And the means by which he did this is a classic example of Stealing Genius.
Back in 1941, de Mestral went on a walk along the mountain paths of the Swiss Alps with his dog Milka. He wasn’t thinking about fastening systems or spaceships or moon landings. He was thinking, first and foremost, about relaxation … but he was, crucially, keeping his mind open to new ideas and unexpected phenomena, which is one of the crucial requirements of Level 5: Stealing Genius. The Zen Buddhists have a saying: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. As he completed his walk with Milka, de Mestral was, we might say, firmly connected to his beginner’s mind.
It was that beginner’s mind that allowed him to take an experience that others might have simply considered an inconvenience — the burrs that he had to extract from Milka’s coat, and also from his own woolen socks and woolen coat — and ask a simple, powerful question: What is really happening here?
de Mestral concluded that what was really happening was that millions of years of evolution had given the burdock plant — the source of those burrs he had to brush out of his dog’s coat — a powerful bonding strategy. This strategy enabled burdock to propagate its species by spreading its seeds far and wide, throughout the Alps and beyond. At this point, de Mestral asked himself another simple, powerful question: Where else could this be used?
The answer, he concluded, was just about anywhere people needed to fasten something to something else. De Mistral was what I call a Stealing Genius Black Belt. I’ll talk more about the technique he used in Chapter 5.
By studying something already happening in nature, de Mestral came up with a new application. The process is now known as biomimicry, and Velcro is one of its shining success stories. Velcro, of course, is a fastening system made up of two components: a fabric strip featuring hundreds of tiny hooks (analogous to the burdock seeds) capable of “mating” with another fabric strip featuring hundreds of tiny loops (analogous to Milka’s coat and de Mestral’s woolen socks). The result: Two elements that would attach strongly but temporarily, disengaging when pulled apart. His original prototype featured strips made of cotton, a material that presented a number of logistical problems; eventually de Mestral settled on a system that used nylon and polyester. He called the new system Velcro, which was a combination of the French words velour (velvet) and crochet (hook). (Side note: The word Velcro is both a registered trademark for the fastening system, which de Mestral was wise enough to patent, and the name of the company that produces it.)
So there you have it. Because NASA was looking for a totally innovative solution to their zipper problem, they discovered Velcro. And because Georges de Mestral was open to an alien source of ideas, he was able to develop Velcro…a system that helped human beings to go to the moon! That’s Stealing Genius in a nutshell.
Those two questions are worth remembering:
What is really happening here?
Where else could this be used?
Excerpted from Steve’s latest book, STEALING GENIUS: The Seven Levels Of Adaptive Innovation. Published by Sound Wisdom.