austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

There's a melody in your heart

You probably don't think often about the history of tying shoes. This is a healthy choice since there are many other things to think about, like that odd vague smell of burning plastic you sometimes notice in the hallway after you've been gone overnight, what to do about the unsightly seam line visible on the Saturnian moon Iapetus, or why those people are setting up a circus tent in your backyard. You should ask the elephants to stay off the patio furniture.

Yet for most of human history there just wasn't any tying of shoes. one reason was there weren't any shoes, which were invented for Napoleon Bonaparte's army after it was remarked that tromping through a thousand miles of Russian snow was really hard on the bare foot. Napoleon agreed, and had experts come up with a way to cover the foot, which they did by the simple process of covering it. It was a great success, and everybody agreed they should have been making shoes for hundreds of years. The Russians insisted they would have thought of shoes long ago but felt just fine standing in the snow in frost-bitten feet, but after they were caught putting shoes on to stand around in back of their houses.

And yet the earliest shoes were not easy to put on or take off. To ensure a firm hold on the foot the thing to do was make the shoe as a couple of pieces of leather and at the start of the day take needle and thread and stitch the pieces closed around the foot. This could take until well near bedtime, when it was time to use one of those sewing tools I never got the name of, but that my grandmother seemed comfortable with, to undo all the stitching. It took years for the British Army to notice most of its soldiers never left their bunks and were just sewing and unsewing their shoes all day.

Finally, after the Crimean War, which began in 1854 but took until 1856 for the various armies to actually have enough people in shoes simultaneously to hold a battle, the countries of Western Europe competed to find ways of easily tightening and loosening shoes. Union armies experimented through much of the Civil War with welding shoes, resulting in many burned ankles and slugged welders. Rivets, tried in Scotland, got nowhere fast because the striking action of riveting could cause the iron slugs to become magnetized, causing people to walk to the north and drown when they ran out of Scotland.

The breakthrough came in the Ottoman Empire in 1878 when one shoemaker for Sultan Abdul Hamid II said, ``Why don't we simply punch parallel rows of uniformly spaced holes in the shoes and then thread a strong string through the holes to tie them together?'' The Sultan, who was in another room, didn't hear the suggestion, but approved it. When the great success at punching holes in the shoes was reported he nodded as if that were his intent all along, and hastily ordered an investigation to just what was going on with shoes.

The first attempts at tying used separate laces and loops for each pair of holes, but people seeking to save time during the Boulanger movement in France took to only tying the top laces. This made their toes pop out the lower holes, and they started poking the laces through these other holes just to have something blocking them up. And so, by 1889, on a Tuesday, shoes were finally being laced and tied in ways we'd recognize even today, on a Friday.

That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. The glue-covered shoelace, designed so as to make it impossible for knots to unravel themselves, was a dismal failure, and the low-friction superfluid lace was no better, particularly when it slithered out of its holes and prodded into the kitchen cabinets. Shoe-tying machines have ranged from wood-fired steam-driven engines of the late 1890s to modern USB-plug-powered tools, for people who keep their computers at their shoes. There may yet be time to reconsider going barefoot.

Trivia: Apollo 11's Lunar Module sounded five alarms during the powered descent to the first crewed lunar landing. Source: Apollo By The Numbers: A Statistical Reference, Richard W Orloff, NASA SP-4029.

Currently Reading: Washington Goes To War, David Brinkley.


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