Found: The Waffle Iron That Inspired Nike

Host Michele Norris speaks with Melissa Bowerman, daughter in law of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman. Bill's sons discovered their father's waffle iron — the one that inspired Nike's sole technology — on Bill's property. It was thought to be lost.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

There are a lot of runners on our staff, and so we couldn't resist this next story. It's about a piece of running shoe history unveiled this week at Nike corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. As big as Nike is today, the massive athletic equipment company had very modest beginnings. Founder Phil Knight sold shoes out of the back of his car. An art student designed the signature swoosh. And the first waffle tread shoes were actually made with a waffle iron. And 40 years later, that waffle iron has reappeared.

And to find out how, we're joined by Melissa Bowerman. She's the daughter-in-law of the waffle tread inventor and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman. She joins us from Fossil, Oregon.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. MELISSA BOWERMAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, as I mentioned, the legend is that your mother-in-law and father-in-law invented the waffle trainer, and I want you to remind us of that story. Is it true that inspiration struck at the breakfast table?

Ms. BOWERMAN: Yes. That's the way they tell the story. He got to looking at the waffle iron more than the waffle - the waffle iron itself. It was a little 6-inch 1930s kind of an Art Deco-style waffle iron, and he got looking at the pattern on it and thought that the little spike parts of the waffle would grip the ground really well if they were made of rubber.

NORRIS: So, you know, for history's sake, remind us of something. If you ran track a long time ago, you remembered how spikes used to tear up the field. What was the impact of the waffle sole?

Ms. BOWERMAN: You know, I guess, I didn't realize how this story came out. To tell you the truth, we've gotten emails and phone calls, people saying that was a huge deal to me when that shoe came out. That shoe really changed my running form, or it really sped up my time. Maybe they were cross-country, and there wasn't really a good light shoe to run cross-country in that grip the ground, and these did. We knew - you know, as far as Nike's side of it, it was huge. What we didn't realize is how big of a deal it was to the public.

NORRIS: So how did he actually create this prototype?

Ms. BOWERMAN: My husband said it took him four waffles to make a pair of shoes on that six - little...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BOWERMAN: ...six-inch waffle iron.

NORRIS: Now, I'm actually looking at a picture that we found online, and it's sort of crusty. And it really does look quite aged.

Ms. BOWERMAN: Not sort of crusty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Very crusty.

Ms. BOWERMAN: The waffle iron is in horrible shape, but it was found in a landfill. Some people don't understand. They think maybe it was in a tarp or in a bag. It wasn't. It was literally in the earth, right out back of his shop where he did all of his working and inventing. Apparently, my husband said that the trash truck would not come out that far. So they had a big ditch dug into this hillside that they buried the rubbers that wouldn't burn.

NORRIS: So were you looking for the waffle iron? Why were you out there digging in this property right near the (unintelligible)?

Ms. BOWERMAN: No. My brother-in-law was remodeling the shop, and so he was digging into the ground to pour a foundation for a new shop to remodel the shop. So...

NORRIS: How did you know it was the waffle iron, the original wedding present?

Ms. BOWERMAN: Well, Barbara had described it to us. I don't know how many times. She was always frustrated because Nike has several waffle irons on display, but they're square. And she knew that the very first one was her little round one. People would say, oh, I saw a picture of the first waffle iron, and she'd say, no, that isn't the first one. The first one was little and round, and it was mine from our wedding. And it came out of my kitchen.

NORRIS: So three quick questions. Who reached out to Nike to tell them that you've found the waffle iron? What was their response, and where will it land now?

Ms. BOWERMAN: It was one of the funniest things I ever did, to send an email telling them we found this waffle iron, but it was a little bittersweet due to the condition it was in. They were immediately interested. I told them I was wanting to know the value because I was wanting to sell it for the track team to fund some equipment that we needed badly and the pole vault. Then, they said they will be thrilled to help us, and we just - we made a trade.

NORRIS: All good all around.

Ms. BOWERMAN: Yeah.

NORRIS: Melissa Bowerman is the daughter-in-law of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman.

Melissa, thanks so much.

Ms. BOWERMAN: Thank you.

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