Hidden Corners of History: Seeds of Change... of Ingenuity... of the Future



Jarrod E. Stephens 

The Ashland Beacon 

   Wintertime and illness both have an uncanny ability to make window watchers or couch potatoes out of all of us from time to time. Sometimes we use the time wisely and catch up with friends and relatives with a call, maybe fix those little things that we’ve let go, or pass the time aimlessly swiping glass screens hoping to create combos of candies. Me, I like to read about ordinary people who have changed and are changing the world. It is always amazing to me to read about how everyday items that we use were the brainchild of inventors who found themselves looking at what many perceive as a problem, and they instead saw it as an opportunity. 

   Seeds are not only the beginnings of life for many plants, but they are also the beginnings of some pretty ingenious thinking as well. The ideas were much like seeds that once planted yielded something useful for life. We’ve all heard about how George Washington Carver was the father of peanut butter and found over three hundred uses for the peanut. Since then, there have been countless healthy snacks created using peanuts and other seeds.

   Seeds travel in various ways. Some seeds fall from their parent plant to the ground, while the wind carries others, and some seeds even hitchhike a ride on an unsuspecting passerby. In fact, it was a seed that inspired the amazing invention we know as Velcro. 

   In the summer of 1948, an inventor and hiker George de Mestral returned from a long hike with his dog. They had ventured into the wilderness and George soon discovered that he and his companion had brought home more than just memories from the trip. Mestral and his dog were covered in burrs, plant seed-sacs that cling to animals and humans as they pass by. This allows the seed to travel to new areas where it can grow into a plant if it falls to the ground. 

   There’s no doubt that many of you know just how aggravating burrs can be when you get them all over you. Being an inventor, Mestral was fascinated with the clinging power of the burrs, so he placed one under a microscope for a closer look. What he found would change the fastening world forever. Amazingly, at the end of each point of the burr was a tiny hook. The hooks were able to grab onto Mestral and his faithful friend by hooking into tiny loops in the fiber of Mestral’s pants and into his dog’s fur. Mestral was so intrigued that he set out to invent a two-sided fastener that would consist of stiff hooks on one side and soft loops on the other. The two sides would cling to one another much like the burrs had clung to his clothing and his dog. 

   His idea and invention were not overnight successes but instead took a lot of trial and error to create a useable product. It took Mestral until 1955 to successfully patent his product. He coined the term “Velcro” by blending the words velour and crochet. Today you can find Velcro on shoes, hats, jackets, sports equipment, and countless other places.  And to think that it was inspired by a seed. Isn’t that “‘fasten’ating?”

   While one piece of ingenuity was created to keep things in place, another everyday item that is used was created to help keep us on the go. Most vehicles in America are powered by either gasoline or diesel. In an effort to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, scientists have begun creating bio-fuels made completely from seeds like corn and soybeans and the blended E85 fuel using corn and other grains. The “E” in E85 stands for ethanol. The ethanol that is created from the seeds is combined with gasoline to reduce the amount of crude oil we use. This also becomes a winning proposition for our farmers who are raising the grains used in the fuel.      

   Since we still have several weeks of winter remaining, I guess that means that we all perhaps many opportunities to look to the seeds for inspiration. Don’t forget, the next time you fasten the Velcro on your boots or jacket and fill up your vehicle with some good old E85 that you are indeed reaping the rewards of the seeds of ingenuity.