Shoes, Post-It Notes, and the Jamaican Olympic Bobsled Team
Jan Earnst Matzeliger, 1852-1889
Who knew that one young man saving scrap metal, old cigar boxes and pieces of wire could obtain a major patent? Or that a choir member invented Post-It Notes to solve a problem at church? Or that four Jamaican men who had never seen snow, would compete in the Olympic bobsled event?
They all had one characteristic in common: resourcefulness. Using ideas and articles that others might overlook, they forged ahead when faced with obstacles.
Jan Earnst Matzeliger’s father was a Dutch engineer and his mother a Black woman from Suriname (then known as Dutch Guiana). By age ten, Earnst loved tinkering in the machine shops his father supervised. The innovative young man eventually settled in America where he struggled to survive in an era with limited job opportunities for men of color.
Friends who knew Earnst testified he was kindhearted, hard-working, and scrupulously honest. He was also very poor. He made homemade toys for a friend’s little brother—baskets from peach pits, medals for bravery from leather scraps. Matzeliger’s poverty-induced resourcefulness later proved a money-saving asset to an important industry.
In Lynn, Massachusetts, Earnst was hired to operate a machine which stitched soles onto shoes. In those days, shoes were fitted around lasts, wooden models of a human foot. Matzeliger’s job was to set the leather upper of a shoe over the last, stretch it to fit the inner sole, then tack it in place and trim off excess leather. The process was time-consuming. In fact, an average quota was 50 pairs of shoes a day.
Matzeliger had an idea but lacked resources. While manufacturers spent large sums of money hiring professionals to invent machines to speed up this process, this poor, yet talented young man went to work building a prototype in his tiny apartment.
What does one do when he lacks resources? He utilizes new ways to recycle old components. Assembling broken machine parts and castings, along with pieces of wire, the dedicated young man spent years inventing a machine that would do the task in much less time than in the factories.
Matzeliger patented his idea in 1855. His invention made 75 pairs of women’s shoes in one day. Going back to his drawing board, Ernst refined it further until the number rose to 150-700 pairs a day.
The result was more job opportunities for unskilled laborers, and high-quality footwear at lower costs. It was a win/win situation.
Then there was Art Fry, a church choir member who needed a way to keep scraps of paper from falling out of his hymnbook. An employee of the 3M company, he utilized their glue which was too weak to use for tape and combined it with scrap paper. Voila! Post-It Notes!
My favorite is the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. I laughed when I first read about four men from a tropical country, training to compete in the 1988 Olympic bobsled event. However, facing down outright ridicule, these visionaries felt their skills in soccer, track and field would give them an edge in competition.
With indomitable spirit, the team constructed a makeshift cart and practiced on a flat concrete surface on their island. They spent a day picking up pointers from the US bobsled team. Although they didn’t win the event, their resourcefulness and optimism gained the admiration of the world.
Jamaican bobsled leader Devon Harris said, “You must never give up, no matter how difficult it gets. Follow your dreams, even though the odds might be stacked high against you.”
Your turn. What resourceful person do you know—or know about? Tell us about them below.