I don’t know how to make shoes, but I’d imagine waffle irons aren’t often employed in their production. Except, that is, in the case of Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike, who in 1971 created the company’s classic running shoe, the Waffle Trainer, with a kitchen appliance he and his wife had received as a wedding gift in 1936. Bowerman, a track coach at the University of Oregon, was trying desperately to come up with a new kind of running shoe—sans metal spikes—that wouldn’t rip up a newly installed urethane track.
He’d been racking his brain for a while, according to Matt Blitz’s fun historical recounting in Popular Mechanics, when, one morning, Bowerman’s wife Barbara was making a meal on the waffle iron and Bowerman had what in-house Nike historian Scott Reames calls the “Breakfast epiphany.”
"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,'" Barbara recalled in 2006. "So he got up from the table and went tearing 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 the process, Bowerman broke the iron, but he was able to develop the new shoe’s soles based on the imprint of a standard waffle iron and introduced his creation in 1974. The original waffle iron, though, was lost to history until it turned up years later, in 2010, when the Bowermans’ son Tom found it buried in the Bowermans’ old backyard. The waffle iron is now a part of the Nike Archives.
Although it looks like an old bear trap, rusted and gnarly and broken, it’s a reminder that innovation can come from the most unexpected nooks. Consider that the next time you use a kitchen appliance.