This Day In History: February 26

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On February 26, 1974, Nike receives a U.S. patent for its waffle trainer running shoes. Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman invented the now-iconic soles in a waffle iron over breakfast.

Before Air Jordans and "Just do it," Nike was a small sneaker company founded at the University of Oregon. Bill Bowerman, the coach of the Oregon track team, and Phil Knight, one of his runners, were unsatisfied with available running footwear. They tinkered with shoes to make them lighter and faster, replacing canvas and leather uppers with nylon and adding a distinctive wedged heel.

Their big breakthrough, however, came from the Bowerman family breakfast table.  University of Oregon had decided to replace its cinder track with an artificial one, and Bowerman wanted to design a shoe that would grip the artificial track without spikes. One morning over breakfast, his wife's waffle iron provided the inspiration for the new shoes. Barbara Bowerman recalled that "as one of the waffles came out, he said, 'You know, by turning it upside down—where the waffle part would come in contact with the track—I think that might work.'"

Bowerman immediately began experimenting by pouring polyurethane into the waffle iron, creating the first prototypes of Nike's waffle sole. The waffle iron (a wedding present) was ruined, but the first Nike waffle trainer was born.

Bowerman sewed the waffle soles onto his running shoes, which became a hit. His patent application described “an athletic shoe suitable for use on artificial turf…the sole has short multi-sided polygon shaped studs…which provide gripping edges that give greatly improved traction.”

He and Knight sold their shoes at track meets across the West Coast before expanding nationwide. Their advertising campaign featured the slogan "Made famous by word of foot advertising," and touted the waffle trainer as "the classic running shoe."

After the runaway success of the Nike Waffle trainers, Bowerman and Knight continued to create popular new athletic shoes. Their innovative design, creative marketing and eye for fashion launched Nike from a small regional business to a global behemoth.

In 2011, Bill Bowerman's son and daughter-in-law unearthed the original waffle iron. It had been buried in the yard on their property in Fossil, Oregon, since the 1970s. It was "in horrible shape," according to Bowerman's daughter-in-law, but Nike executives were thrilled with the discovery. The waffle iron is now displayed at Nike Headquarters in Oregon.