How A Waffle Iron Inspired Nike's First Running Shoes

Nike, one of the biggest names in sports apparel, with revenues of over $28 billion in 2021 (via Statista), is famous for creating comfortable, versatile, light, and stylish sneakers. The top-selling sneaker brand is not only popular with teens, millennials, and celebrities, it is embraced by legendary athletes, including soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, famed golfer Tiger Woods, and tennis sensation Rafael Nadal, according to The Richest.

In 2019, Canadian entrepreneur Miles Nadal bought a pair of 1972 Nike running shoes for a whopping $475,550 (via CNBC). You may wonder what was so special about the most expensive sneakers ever auctioned? Well, the Nike "Waffle Shoe" was crafted with the unique waffle-patterned sole designed by Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman for the 1972 Olympic runners. Per Nike, the invention offered more traction and flexibility on multiple surfaces. But do you know the bizarre story behind the iconic shoe that made Nike a global sneaker powerhouse?

The discovery of a 'light'ning fast running shoe – without spikes

In 1970, Bowerman was looking to create the lightest and fastest running shoes with a sole that could grip well on dirt, grass, and bark dust without destroying the track (via The Oregonian). "A shoe must be three things," he said, according to Nike. "It must be light, comfortable, and it's got to go the distance." In late 1971, the epiphany came in the kitchen as he saw his wife, Barbara, using a waffle iron the couple got as a wedding gift (via Popular Mechanics).

"It was one of the few (footwear-related) things he ever talked to me about, so it was kind of fun for me," Barbara told Nike historian Scott Reames, according to The Oregonian. "I picked out a couple pieces of jewelry and things that had stars on them, or things that we thought would indent or make a pattern on the soles. We were making the waffles that morning and talking about (the track). 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."

The rubber mold inspired nike's waffle trainer

Nike's first running shoes, created in 1972 and debuted in 1974, actually had a sole made using a waffle iron (via The Atlantic). Before Nike's Waffle Trainer, running shoes were flat, had metal spikes that added to their weight and often lost grip on uneven running surfaces. Bowerman created and patented the waffle sole using a lightweight rubber mold, sewed it to a pair of running shoes, and forever transformed how athletes ran. "It would adapt to the surface you were running," Reames said, according to Popular Mechanics. "It was almost like a self-adjusting form of traction that you didn't get with a metal spike."

Bowerman's invention, dubbed the "moon shoes" because of their resemblance to Neil Armstrong's footprints on the Moon, boosted Nike's sales from $10 million to $270 million in the next ten years (via TIME). "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," Melissa Bowerman, Bowerman's daughter-in-law, said, per NPR.