Last year, Nike reported a fiscal revenue of $32.4 billion, representing 6 percent growth from 2015, and as of May 2016 Forbes ranked the brand with the Swoosh as the 18th biggest on the planet.
These impressive stats belie Nike's humble origins as a quiet initiative undertaken at the University of Oregon by running coach Bill Bowerman and pupil Phil Knight. Today it's a story that is thoroughly embedded in sneaker folklore, but Nike's first pair of running shoes may never have taken form if not for one particular breakfast food.
In the early 1970s, Oregon's Hayward Field, where Bill worked for years, was transitioning from a crushed cinder track to an artificial surface, and Bowerman was searching for a running shoe solution that would be suitable for multiple surfaces. The origins of the Oregon Waffle, afterwards named the Waffle Trainer, derive from Bowerman's experiments with a simple waffle iron, the grooves of which proved to be a near perfect mold for a running shoe. Now protected under United States patent #3,793,750, Bill's idea was essentially a track spike without the spikes. As Bill's wife Barbara told The Oregonian years later:
"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.' 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."
Bill was constantly working to change and redefine the status quo in running equipment, and his eureka moment created the Waffle Trainer, successfully marketed and released in 1973. Both responsive and able to accommodate an uneven running surface, the shoe also helped champion the idea that not only could the midsole absorb shock, but the outsole as well.
Before it, many athletics soles were flat and lower to the ground, yet the waffle-inspired sole had small bulbs that protruded out for extra grip and rebound. This was the first major innovation from a company that has gone on to revolutionize the sneaker industry with advents like Visible Air, Flyknit, Lunarlon and more.
Priced between $21.95 and $24.95, the original made-in-Japan runner featured a nylon upper, and debuted in a red and white colorway, but the version that quickly became popular with local athletes was dressed in the University of Oregon's signature yellow and green scheme, while later models also took on the colors of other California schools like UCLA.
The Waffle Trainer's early campaigns were lead with slogans like "Made Famous by Word of Foot Advertising," touting "You've seen them on training tracks and fields all over the country. You know them for their quality, their light weight, and long life."
Canvas versions came later, as well as a ladies version, and also a slightly redesigned, and more expensive version called the Waffle Racer that hit the market around 1977 costing around $30. The Racer kept the shoe's design DNA alive and well, with the added benefit of a lightweight EVA midsole, and a wider, more stable design.
As it was tweaked over time, the original waffle sole went on to be used in a wide variety of Nike products, from the Astro Grabber and the Nike Elite to the game-changing Tailwind, and even shoes for American football.
No one really kept track of the famous waffle iron itself, until a rusted appliance was unearthed near a house in Coburg, Oregon where former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman once lived. The fossilized waffle iron was serendipitously discovered by the wife of Bill's son, Jon Bowerman, along with shoe treads that were handmade by Bill.
Nike's Holy Grail had been reclaimed, and now sits on display at the company's headquarters in Beaverton. On the discovery, Nike historian Scott Reames noted, "It truly is the headwaters of our innovation. From a historian's standpoint, it's like finding the Titanic."
Now, read up on 10 unexpected sneaker influences that have impacted Nike footwear.