Starting blocks were invented in 1927 by George Bresnahan of Iowa. Formerly athletes took up a variety of poses at the start of a race: some stood like boxers, others were crouching, some dug holes for feet and hands and so on. Below is a detail from drawings from his American patent. His invention meant that now there was something projecting from the ground to brace the feet and enabling faster starts than a, literally, flat foot. Others patented variants of the idea.
Acceptance of the innovation was, to put it mildly, by no means universal. The Times of 3 December 1929 quotes the Chairman of the U.S Amateur Athletics Union as saying that 'the blocks were a distinct advantage, and enabled a sprinter to get away with a longer stride'. The Union waited until the International Federation agreed to their use before authorising them at their own meetings.
In May 1930 the Americans recommended accepting records made with starting blocks but the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) rejected this, and declared that records made with the assistance of blocks were not valid. At the time the IAAF controlled such matters at the Olympics.
After prolonged discussion it was decided that starting blocks would not be allowed at the 1932 Olympic Games at Los Angeles. Nor were they used at the 1936 Games in Berlin. In March 1938 the IAAF finally agreed to the use of starting blocks at a meeting where the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo were discussed, but that venue was later switched to Helsinki as many were angered by Japan's invasion of China.
It was not until March 1939 that the AAA, the [British] Amateur Athletics Association, agreed that starting blocks could be used at their events. It had been pointed out that not using them meant that British athletes were at a disadvantage when competing abroad, where athletes were used to using them. This was decided during a meeting when it was agreed that the 1940 championships would be held early to help pick athletes going to the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki - and this one, too, of course never took place.
Roger Bannister's mile run on a windy day in Oxford in 1954 was the first to go under four minutes. In hindsight, it's surprising that the milestone ever happened with the slow cinder tracks of the time and by modern standards terrible running shoes (although he was helped by Brasher and Chataway pacing him).
A flat, springy surface would be far more effective than surfaces like cinders (or grass). This was realised by the head of 3M, the Minnesota company that has given us Post-it® notes among other chemical innovations. Yes, William McKnight wanted a good surface for horse racing, as it would reduce injuries.
A solution was developed, and in 1962 3M filed for a patent for 'Paving material and paving surfacing', a product that the company called Tartan Turf and (for athletics) Tartan Track. Bizarrely, perhaps, one of the inventors was Richard Drew, the inventor of Scotch Tape®. Urethane elastomers would be poured in place and would then harden to give a consistent and rubbery surface with 'give'. The patent emphasises its use in horse racing, but it turned out that it was too expensive for the long circuits used in racing, and only a few were built. Instead it gave us the familiar pink 400 metre circuits used in modern athletics. It's strong, too -- one comment in 1967 was that the new Penn State track was 'tough enough to withstand an invasion of Patton tanks'.
The new type of track was used at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
Speedo is a British company with an excellent track record of innovating in swimwear. This includes their new LZR Racer® swimsuit.
Patent applications for the technology were published in June 2008, both titled 'Sports garment'.
Steve van Dulken's blog on patents and IP may be relevant to those who have found this page helpful.