Friday, 30 March 2012

Air Time

Since an aerospace engineer named Frank Rudy inserted a gall-filled polyurethane capsule into the sole of the Nike Air Tailwind in 1979, the footwear industry has been revolutionised over the course of three storied decades. The legacy of this technological breakthrough has seen renewed attempts in defining what it means to be 'light on your feet'. The rest of this post could easily be dedicated to any one of the 12 Nike air sole units pictured above. All 12 stand in testament to Nike being at the forefront in continually developing this initial invention of 1979. The cynic within us all would accredit such achievements to the original conception and patenting of the technology by Nike but in reality it has not prevented others from trying. After all the engineering may be patentable but the air is anybodies to play around with as Feiyue have recently demonstrated with their flying project of 2011.     

Turning back the clock, it is as late as 1989 (a whole decade after the Tailwind) when other companies cottoned on to the benefits of using air components in the sole of their sneakers. The infamous Reebok Pump with its one of a kind pump technology was the first to emerge. Its complexity in all truths was enough to take the best part of a 10 years to get right. 

By pumping the shoe one was able to control the air pressure within their sneaker, enabling a custom fit that delivered more comfort and stability to the shoe. But it's coup de grace was its fabled jumping boosts that were so expertly exhibited by Dee Brown in the 1991 NBA Slam Dunk Contest

A year later in 1990 it was Reebok again aiming to build upon the impact of the Pump with its Hexalite technology in it's Reebok Preacher

Taking its inspiration from one of the lightest and strongest shapes to be found in nature, the honeycomb design element allowed for the spreading of shock over a larger area than Nike's polyurethane air bags. Additionally with air pockets filling the empty spaces within the honeycomb structure, this provided superior cushioning without taking on any additional weight. Sadly it was a short lived technological development not to be used in any other model by Reebok and still has yet to be retroed. 

Not to be deterred by the Reebok Preacher's inability to make a name for itself, Reebok had one last throw of the dice seven years later with the task of providing Allen Iverson with his first signature shoe - The Reebok Answer 1.    

Consisting of movable air pockets built in between the midsole and outsole of the shoe, it aimed to absorb the energy exerted by the impact of one's foot on the ground by instantaneously transferring cushioned air to the point where the shoe contacted the ground. To understand this better, air would essentially flow from heel to toe and back again as you walked the streets or ran the court. Reebok this time round had everything nearly in place. They had a prime athlete in Allan Iverson, they had the guaranteed comfort of its latest and last air cushioning system but sadly they lacked the looks and aesthetics to make this a shoe able to rival anything from the Nike stable. 

Just in case you thought I might be giving the impression that only Reebok dared to flirt with air technology you would be mistaken. As last on my list is an offering from Converse, with its 1999 offering the All Star HE101.

It's concept was simple. Where Nike and Reebok had been using air, Converse decided that air was too heavy and would instead use the periodic table's second lightest element in helium to provide equal amounts of cushioning but at a reduced net weight. Just as Reebok had fallen at the last hurdle, be that the aesthetics of the shoe, Converse would fall just the same. It may be one thing to have technological innovations to challenge the performance of Nike's air cushioning system but it is a whole different problem to face when combining it with pleasing, beautiful design. 

With an aesthetic few can imitate, it would seem that Nike has it's competition beat in the air stakes for the time being at least.  

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