Do you know why there is an ordinary old waffle iron — pulled out of a backyard garbage pit and now broken and brown with rust — sits displayed in a protective case like the Hope Diamond in Prefontaine Hall in Oregon?
The answer has nothing to do with breakfast food.
In 1971, college track coach Bill Bowerman’s team was having a heck of time adapting to the relatively new (and expensive) urethane track that had been installed at the University of Oregon.
Traditional metal spikes were ripping it up and athletes struggled to keep their traction.
Bowerman became obsessed with searching for alternatives that wouldn’t destroy their new track and could work on other surfaces, like dirt, grass, and bark chips.
He looked for inspiration anywhere he could find it.
He constantly asked his wife Barbara to search through her jewelry for anything “that had stars on them or things that we thought would indent or make a pattern on the soles.”
One Sunday morning. Barbara decided to stay home from church to help Bill find an answer to this perplexing question. So she started making breakfast on an old waffle iron that was a wedding gift back in 1936, distinctive for its old-fashioned Art Deco design.
The epiphany came as Barbara was serving her husband breakfast.
Bill saw one of the waffles come out of the iron. He looked at the pattern on the underside of one of the waffles and thought, you know, if I turn this waffle upside down, revealing where the waffle part would come in contact with the track — I think that might work.
He got up from the table and rushed into his lab and got two cans of whatever it is you pour together to make the urethane and poured them into the waffle iron.
In his excitement, Bowerman forgot to spray a nonstick substance into the waffle iron. Unable to open the waffle iron back up, Bowerman abandoned it and went into town to fetch new waffle irons for his experiment. Barbara, meanwhile, threw out the now-ruined wedding gift.
Seven years earlier, Bowerman had entered into a handshake agreement with one of his former track athletes Phil Knight, to start an athletic footwear distribution company called Blue Ribbon Sports.
The company, you’ll excuse the pun, had very little traction in the sporting goods industry. No one seemed aware of them.
They changed their name and paid a freelance graphic designer $35 logo to design their logo.
The new name was Nike. And a simple, distinctive swoosh became their new logo.
“I don’t love it,” Knight told the graphic designer, “but I think it will grow on me.”
Nike launched their new shoe with the waffle iron-inspired sole.
Embraced not only by passionate runners but also, as Time magazine put it, “the army of weekend jocks suffering from bruised feet,” the Waffle Trainer became a part of American history and cemented Nike’s place as the iconic brand it is today.
Bill Bowerman became a shoe legend; Knight pronounced him in his memoir as “the Daedalus of sneakers.”
Some years later, the Bowermans’ son Tom was digging alongside the house and came across a curious looking pit of forgotten belongings that never quite made it to the landfill. Included in the pile were crudely cobbled-together shoes, old prototype metal plates, cracking rubber soles, peeling molds …
… and one rusty old waffle iron.
In 2011, Nike’s self-proclaimed “Holy Grail” was put on display in Prefontaine Hall, where it has remained ever since.
Says Nike historian Scott Reames: “It’s a perfect example of how we find innovation, where we look for it, how it can come from the most mundane or unlikely sources. That’s an important message; we can find inspiration in literally anything.”