Inventions that made the modern running shoe

Inventions that made the modern running shoe

With the London Marathon just around the corner, Gregory St Clair Jones and Nico Cousens take a look at some of the many inventions that have shaped the modern running shoe we know today. Things have moved on somewhat since Pheidippides ran the nearly 25 miles from Marathon to Athens barefoot in 490 BC. Apparently, the extra 1.2 miles were added at 1908 Summer Olympics to accommodate the royal box of the British royal family at the finish line.

The rubber sole

In 1882, Wait Webster patented a process for cementing a rubber sole to a shoe. However, the natural rubber used lacked elasticity and durability, meaning that the rubber soles came apart easily. It wasn’t until the process of vulcanisation was developed that rubber soled shoes became practical. Vulcanisation is a process whereby rubber is heated with sulphur to create crosslinks between polymer chains in the rubber, making the rubber more durable, more elastic, and more appropriate for use in footwear. 

There is some debate as to who discovered the process of vulcanisation. The first patent for the process was awarded to British scientist and engineer Thomas Hancock in 1843. However, American Charles Goodyear (from whom the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company takes its name) was awarded a patent for a similar process in the United States three weeks after Hancock had obtained his British patent. Goodyear claimed to have discovered vulcanisation in 1839 and even wrote a book about how he made the discovery. Irrespective of who crossed the finish line first, runners today still benefit from this milestone in the development of the trainer.

The shoe lasting machine

Lasting is the process whereby the upper part of a shoe is fixed to the sole. Throughout most of the 1800s, this process was carried out by hand.  A highly skilled shoemaker could last up to 50 shoes in a working day. By the mid-1800s, many shoe manufacturing steps were performed with the assistance of machines. Lasting, however, still needed to be done by hand. In 1877, Jan E. Matzeliger, who had emigrated from Suriname at the age of 19, began an apprenticeship at Harney Brothers, a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. He spent the next five years building a machine which could assist in the lasting process using scrap metal from the factory. By 1882, he had developed a fully functioning lasting machine and submitted a request for a patent to the US patent office in the same year. The drawings of the machine were so complex that officials from the US patent office had to visit Matzeliger in person and, once he had demonstrated how his machine worked, he was awarded a patent in 1883.

Once Matzeliger's machine was up and running, it could produce up to 700 shoes a day. Ultimately, Matzeliger’s marathon achievement played a key role in driving down the cost of footwear, helping make high-quality footwear more widely available.


In 1978, Nike released the Tailwind for the Honolulu Marathon. It featured the first ever air-sole unit. Former NASA engineer M. Frank Rudy came up with the idea of designing trainers with a hollowed-out midsole filled with a polyurethane pouch. He repurposed a technique used in the manufacture of astronaut helmets for the Apollo missions to create the shoes. Several patents to the use of a polyurethane pouch in footwear were filed in Rudy’s name.

In 1987, the Air Max 1 – with visible air pockets in the sole – was released. This front-runner marked the first in a line of Air Max trainers, new iterations of which continue to be released today. Although the Air Max 1 is no longer winning races, it has become an iconic design with original pairs being sold for runaway prices.

Vibram five fingers

In 1999, Robert Fliri came up with the idea of a shoe which was more like a glove for your foot. His objective was to make the foot move as it would in nature, without footwear. Separate slots enable the toes to move independently of each other and a thin and flexible sole is provided to allow more natural foot movement. The design was commercialised by Vibram in 2004. The benefits of these shoes are disputed, however, the shoes remain popular with runners.


The fastest time across the marathon distance is 2h:00m:25s recorded by Eliud Kipchoge at Monza race track in December 2016.  Nike developed a state-of-the-art shoe called the Vapor Fly Elite for the occasion. Each pair was designed specifically for the athlete who wore it. The shoeincorporated the distinctive ZoomX midsole and a curved carbon fiber plate which acted together to minimise energy loss. New shoes are being developed for further attempts to break the two-hour mark and we shall see what the future holds.

Kilburn & Strode would like to wish all the runners taking part in the London Marathon this weekend the best of luck.

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