The first pairs of Nike shoes were built in the head of Oregon's Track Coach Bill Bowerman, and in the moldings of many a waffle iron belonging to his wife. These original "waffle trainers" were rumored to have been sold out of the back of a Volkswagen Bus. The first legitimate Nike retail store was called "The Athletic Department."My high school track coach recalls ordering a team set of waffle trainers for one of his 1960's squads in what other than Oregon green and gold.
Bill Bowerman was a man obsessed with performance - performance in his runners and performance in their footware. Bowerman believed that shaving ounces off a shoe would save pounds when each lift and strike of the foot over an entire race was added up. Bowerman's project (and Nike) started in the basement of McArthur Court, the University of Oregon's basketball gymnasium. Armed with ingenuity, a quiver of waffle irons, and an array of odd compounds that he was testing for the outsole, Bowerman began the adventure known as Nike.
The first soles were actual molds that came out of a waffle iron. From there Bowerman developed lighter and stronger materials. The Air concept came from an aerospace engineer. Bowerman and Nike sunk loads of money into development of this new technology. While the industry scoffed, Nike came out firing on all cylinders, as the Nike Air midsole grabbed a huge chunk of market share for the relatively new firm.
A similar idea and one you may have heard of recently in the news or may even have on your feet at this very moment, was given much money and research & development time: the Shox project. After trying everything from actual steel springs to carbon fiber plate, the design was finally determined workable at the turn of the 21st century. The result of 14 years of work? A well cushioned shoe with no medial support that provides only the luckiest of neutral runners with a proper foundation, and a price tag of around $150.
For many years Nike had many quality control issues as well as turmoil regarding their labor practices, specifically farming out dirt cheap labor in LDC's (Less Developed Countries). Phil Knight (co-founder) took the helm after Bowerman's retirement and the University of Oregon would eventually lose all Nike funding, equipment, and advertising due to student body protests over labor. This is a true shame as Oregon and Nike are both so intrinsically Bowerman.
In recent years Nike has taken a new grass roots approach to R&D and design. A major problem of some of Nike's flashiest nuetral shoes was that Nike would sometimes have a model in development two years ahead of its release, allowing no feedback from the current model, only older ones. The turnover rate for the air max was something like once every 3 months. The new running specialty footwear line is known as the Bowerman series. Named after the creator only after his death, as he was far too humble to have ever allowed this in his life, the series is a return to basics. The shoes in this line are sold only to running specialty stores, the series runs the spectrum from ultra light to motion control, and each shoe has a shelf life of 24 months (a guarantee that no drastic changes will occur to a shoe inside of 2 years, meaning that when you go back to buy the shoe it will still be there.)