The Clerk in the Country

Friday 4th March 2022


Velcro, patented in 1955, really came to public notice when it was used on the clothing and equipment of Apollo astronauts.  At primary school at the time, I remember our headmaster acquired a precious sample.  We sat in a circle while he demonstrated, with the aid of diagrams (in white chalk on a black board, in those days) how the two strange strips stuck together.  Then he passed them round and we took turns at our little taste of space exploration.

I was reminded of this the other morning by the sight of a squirrel climbing an old telegraph pole, re-purposed to support a shed roof.  Relatively smooth compared to a tree, the pole presents quite a challenge.  Cats can get up this one by taking a long run at it and hurtling at top speed to the safety of the roof beam.  Coming down is quite another matter.  Bright, resourceful Moppet took an alternative route from the back of the shed via a lower roof.  Midnight, the pedigree found in reduced circumstances at the rescue centre, had to wait on the beam until a member of her staff fetched a ladder.  None of this was necessary for the squirrel, which scampered halfway up the pole, paused for a moment, turned and came down a little way, changed its mind and headed upwards again, had a look around the back, ambled up to the top, explored the beam and made its leisurely way back down again.  A squirrel is of course much smaller and lighter than a cat, but the important difference is that it can turn its hind paws so that its claws point backwards.

Squirrels are not alone in having a good grip.  As Storm Franklin raged, I noticed a woodpigeon lock its claws into a sturdy branch, from which vantage point it calmly watched me pursuing the wheelie bin across the yard.

But it was neither bird nor animal that inspired the invention of Velcro. George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, hit on the idea after he and his dog returned from a walk covered in burrs of the burdock plant.