Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal Arts
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NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
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Art by Thomas Blinks


At the beginning of the 20th century, a Swiss engineer walked his dog somewhere, and it came home with a bunch of thistles entangled in the wool.

You could just comb them out, but he didn’t stop there. What did he do?

The answer is a little later.




The burdocks are firmly and securely attached to the dog’s hair. But a person was solving the problem of attaching two pieces of tissue or skin to each other not always successfully and for a long time, moving from one solution to another and still did not choose the optimal option.

We recently talked about how to hold these materials together forever, recalling Isaac Singer’s invention – it also didn’t work out right away. But no less (if not more) difficult was the skill to first fasten these pieces, putting on a piece of clothing, and then easily separate, taking it off.

At first, everything was as easy as shelling pears – the skin was belted with a sash or rope, and sometimes tied around the neck, usually by the paws. But when people wanted to wear something other than animal skins, and came up with fabrics to drape their own skin, things got more complicated.

Almost the first fastener,  was a brooch, popular since ancient times, in our opinion a hairpin. It usually served not only to fasten clothes, but also as a decoration. As a rule, it consisted of a needle cleaving two pieces of fabric, a needle holder that secured the needle in this position, a bow, or the body of the entire brooch, and a spring connecting the bow to the needle.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?

In the Middle Ages, the agraph appeared – a clasp in the form of a brooch with a hook and loop. Unlike the brooch, the agraph was not a hairpin, but a clasp. Quite often, agraphs were made of precious metals and decorated with precious stones – not everyone can afford it anymore …

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?

Another way to fasten was lacing – either over clothes, or through pre-sewn loops, holes in clothes. As a matter of fact, a sash or a belt was also a type of lacing, only its simplest version. So they did it for quite a long time.




Meanwhile, during the period of domination of brooches, agraphs and other hairpins, a long time ago, about 5,000 years ago, in the ancient Indian city of Mohenjo-daro, they had already come up with something that would completely replace these hairpins. But then they did not know how to use this invention at all.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?

Yes, we are undoubtedly talking about buttons – they had holes that were clearly intended for sewing. But the clothes of those times did not have loops – what was done with them? It looked like they were just sewn onto clothes to decorate. However, they do it even now – why not?

But about 2,500 years ago, the Greeks nevertheless began to button up their himation, woolen cloaks up to their knees, not only with fibula, but also with real buttons – they even made a loop in the himation for them. But then the buttons did not replace other fasteners – there were both.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
The oldest buttons

More than 50 buttons were sometimes sewn onto the Scythian “camisoles” of ancient times, but not for fastening – they just thought it was so beautiful. But the Greek warriors quickly adapted buttons for fastening belts on armor – in battle it was more reliable than tying and untying belts.




Nevertheless, throughout antiquity and the dark period of the early Middle Ages, people were buttoned up with various types of hairpins, and buttons were ignored. Only in the 12th century buttons appeared in Europe, moreover, at first – only as jewelry for the nobles – silver or gold.

For the first time, buttons were mentioned in literature at about the same time, in The Song of Roland, and as insignificant trifles. However, the little things were prestigious – in those days, buttons for beauty were sewn on the clothes of noble and rich people, knights and kings.

But already in the XIII century, a revolution took place – European tailors mastered such an important thing as a buttonhole, learned how to overcast or reinforce it with metal overlays. As a result, buttons began to be used specifically for fastening throughout Europe.

Some women’s dresses in that era had up to 200 buttons – buttoning, and even more unbuttoning them, was clearly not boring. And a little later, in the 16th century, the French king Francis I ordered clothes with 13,600 gold buttons – I hope that some were just for beauty…

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Francis I

The rich emphasized their position with buttons made of gold and silver, with inserts of coral, pearls and turquoise. Mary Stuart had as many as 400 enamel buttons, each with a ruby ​​inserted in the middle. And in Russia, loops were embroidered with gold and silver threads.



For a very long time, buttons were also amulets that were supposed to scare away all evil spirits. In Russia, this very purpose of the button was remaining the main one for a long time. Folk etymology even deduced the origin of the word “button” from the word “scare”, although modern philologists do not agree with it, considering it to be derived from the Sanskrit word puñjaḥ – “heap, lump”.

The buttons have often been given a mystical meaning. Legend has it that the Swedish king Charles XII was conspired and could only be killed with a thing that belonged to him. The conspirators stole a brass button from his caftan, wrapped it in lead and killed the king with that bullet.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Charles XII

It is more of a legend, but it is known for certain that because of the buttons, if not the king, then certainly the heir to the throne died. When Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, precisely because he had to unbutton too many buttons on his clothes, the wound was not treated in time, and he eventually died.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Franz Ferdinand

And in England, even in the early Middle Ages, there was a beautiful custom – girls collected buttons and strung them on a stern thread, and from early childhood. It was believed that when a girl has collected exactly 999 buttons, it is time for her to look for a groom – 1,000 is already a lot…




Napoleon Bonaparte attached great importance to the army and wanted the military to look impressive and proud of their clothes. There was also considerable attention to the buttons – each regiment had its own buttons with an original pattern, sometimes gilded.

They said that the buttons on the cuffs of the sleeves played a special role – because of them, it was inconvenient for soldiers to wipe snotty noses with the sleeves of their uniforms. However, after the question, “Why do the soldiers have buttons on the cuffs of their sleeves?” usually asked a new question, “Why do they shine?” There was only one answer to it, “Doesn’t help!”

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Napoleon’s infantry regiments buttons

The buttons of Napoleon’s soldiers were so beautiful that it even damaged the treasury. They said that during the Egyptian campaign, his soldiers often went to the eastern markets and returned from there without buttons – they willingly exchanged various little things for them.

But during the invasion of Russia, it was the buttons that brought trouble to the Great Army. They were often made from tin, and the frosts in 1812 were so strong that the tin turned into a powdery form, the buttons crumbled and the death rate of soldiers from frostbite increased sharply.


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Russian emperors treated buttons with no less attention than Napoleon. Uniform buttons in the Russian Empire were among people of many professions, not only military, but also civilians. Even schoolchildren and students had special buttons.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Russian gymnasium student

The drawing on the button could say something about any military unit. Grenada – a stylized image of a grenade ready to explode – was on the buttons not only of the grenadier regiments, but also of the carabinieri regiments. The gunners had crossed gun barrels on the buttons, and the engineering units had crossed axes on the buttons.

All officials of the imperial court had their own buttons: for the palace government – with the imperial monogram, for the Rumyantsev Museum and the Imperial Public Library – with a double-headed eagle under the crown, and even for the Academy of Arts – with the Apollo Lyre.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Buttons of the Russian Empire

Mining engineers, bank employees, border guards, customs and excise services, the merchant marine and practically all educational institutions – universities, gymnasiums and even theological seminaries – had their own buttons so that everyone could be seen a mile away!




Buttons, like everything else, have their drawbacks. It takes quite a long time to fasten them, and to unfasten them even longer – Franz Ferdinand died precisely because of it. They can come off and get lost, sometimes they unfasten themselves… In general, there is room for improvement…

A more reliable fastener was invented by the inventor of the sewing machine Elias Howe, already mentioned in the article of this column about Isaac Singer. However, by all appearances, he was a good inventor, but a bad trader – he was not able to introduce any of his ideas.

Only many years later, after the Great Fire in Chicago, a draftsman named Style, who jumped out of a second-floor window and injured his back to save a girl from a burning house, asked his friend, inventor William Judson, to come up with a fastener that would prevent bend over for a long time and fasten your shoes with one, not two hands, otherwise it is painful to bend over.

Interestingly, Judson really helped his friend by repeating Howe’s invention on his own. He was able to obtain a patent for it and opened its production. But the work of the discoverers is often imperfect – it was necessary to attach two-page instructions to each product.

It wasn’t until Gideon Sundback got involved that things got off the ground. He made this clasp more reliable and simpler, but only the military really appreciated it – with the beginning of the First World War, this clasp began to be widely used for uniforms.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Gideon Sundback

And the name for it was invented by the president of the Goodrich company, Bertram Work. He really liked the “whack” sound that this clasp made when opening and closing. But the Americans say “zzzip” instead of “whack” – so he called it zipper.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
One of the first zippers




Zipper has significantly pressed buttons – it works faster and is never lost. But it also has its own difficulties – it can break down or, even worse, get stuck. In addition, replacing the zipper is more troublesome than just sewing on a new button. You could have looked for a better idea.

In the end, it was due to the love of animals. The Swiss engineer George de Mestral, choosing from the two groups into which humanity is divided – dog lovers and cat lovers – definitely leaned on the side of the first group. He had a dog, he loved it…

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
George de Mestral

As a convinced cat lover, I am well aware that life is more troublesome for dog lovers – cats may not leave the house, and dogs must certainly be walked. Georges de Mestral was not afraid – dog lovers, they are such. And then one day he took his pet for a walk in a dense forest.

Returning home, he found that quite a lot of thorny fruits of the burdock were entangled in the dog’s fur. What would you do with such a nuisance? Well, they would have combed out the unfortunate dog, they would have pulled the prickly rubbish out of the wool… And what else could have been done?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?




Burdock adheres so well to wool – no worse than parts of clothing for a button or a zipper…

Is it possible to come up with a fastener that would work on the same principle. It can turn out very cool!




George de Mestral wondered – why did the burdock cling to the wool so tightly? To understand it, he carefully examined the seeds of the burdock under a microscope. An unexpected picture opened to him – a lot of hooks that tenaciously held on to the dog’s hair.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
How does burdock work?

He immediately wondered what would happen if such hooks were placed on one textile tape, and something like dog hair on the other. Most likely, if you press them together, they will stick and hold on tight. A very good fastener can turn out…

For quite a long time, by trial and error, he tried to obtain high-quality textile tapes of two types – with hooks and with eyelets. As a result, George was able to achieve normal quality when he began to make them from nylon, and in 1955 he was finally able to obtain a patent for his invention.

Workers of extreme types of activity – astronauts, scuba divers, alpine skiers immediately became interested in him. On the Russian part of the ISS, all the walls are pasted over with a fleecy part of such a fastener, and there are tapes with a hooked part on all instruments – fasten wherever you want! The same tape is used to attach the grinding equipment to the corresponding machines.

Two French words helped to come up with a name for such a convenient fastener – velours, that is, velvet, and crochet, that is, a hook. From the first syllables of these two words, a new word “velcro” was obtained, which is now well known to everyone. Few people at home do not have things with such a fastener.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How to rid a dog of burdocks?
Velcro fastener




4,000 years have passed since the invention of the button until its widespread adoption. People are terribly stupid (yes, and we are with you…).

Why did King Francis I need a caftan with 13,600 buttons, the overwhelming majority of which had never been buttoned up (otherwise they would have put it on and off for at least a day)? To show that he is not like everyone else – it is much more valuable than all the amenities.

A despotic state is always a rigid hierarchy, so that even by the buttons you can see a person’s place on the career ladder. French or Russian – no difference…

To help a friend who found it difficult to bend down, William Judson invented the zipper. Help your friends more often and try harder!

Another would simply comb the dog out and would no longer lead it through these bushes, and George de Mestral also thought… Think more often – perhaps you will also become inventors!

All illustrations from open sources

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