Material Matters: The Evolution of Air in Sneakers

Hyper Blue

Energy-returning foams be all the rage right now, but air-based cushioning tech still remains the go-to in every sneakerhead’s closet. From its debut at the Honolulu Marathon in 1978 to the yet-to-be-released kicks of 2019, air technology in sneakers has come a long way over the past four decades.

Nike’s upcoming Air Max 720 is perhaps the biggest touchstone yet on that evolutionary path. Set for a debut early next year in both Swoosh and Jumpman silhouettes alike, the 720 holds the distinction of not only being a lifestyle-centric cushioning technology, but also the single biggest Air-Sole unit in the history of the Beaverton sportswear giant.

With the 720 right around the corner, we take a look back at some of the most important hallmarks in air-centric sneaker tech over the past 40 years.


1978 - Nike Air Tailwind

The Tailwind is the one that started it all. Released in limited quantities in 1978 for the Honolulu Marathon, the Tailwind debuted the Swoosh’s first-ever Air-Sole unit — a concept pioneered by aerospace technology specialist Frank Rudy and one that was first brought to Nike in 1977. After creating buzz and selling out immediately in Hawaii, the Tailwind was released to the masses in 1979 and the rest is history.


1987 - Nike Air Max 1

After joining the team in 1985, Nike’s Director of Cushioning Innovation, David Forland, began constructing Air-Sole prototypes by hand and stumbled upon what would prove to be a pivotal moment in the history of air: he rotated the bag and placed the seams on the top and bottom instead of around the perimeter. The change allowed more volume to be safely packed into the Air-Sole and was on full display in the Air Max 1 as designer Tinker Hatfield looked to help runners better understand the cushioning benefits of their kicks. Seeing is believing, indeed, and visible air made its debut on the Air Max 1.


1989 - Hi-TEC Badwater 146

The folks up in Beaverton may have dominated air cushioning tech over the years, but they’re definitely not the only ones to use air in performance sneakers. Hi-TEC went in a direction all its own in the late 80s, developing the Air Ball Concept (ABC). An interchangeable pressurised cylinder, ABC compressed on impact and decompressed to help propel a runner into the next stride. The technology was the highlight of the marathon-ready Badwater 146 and can even be considered a precursor of sorts to modern energy-returning cushioning technologies.


1990 - Nike Air Max 90

Three years after the debut of the ground-breaking Air Max 1, David Forland and Tinker Hatfield were ready to up the ante with even more air. The Swoosh introduced the aptly named Air Max 90 in 1990 as Hatfield created a bold ‘Infrared’-accented design to showcase new high-volume Air-Sole unit developed by Forland.


1990 - Reebok Pump

While Nike focused on using air as under-foot cushioning, Reebok opted to surround the foot with an air tech that was all its own. Introduced in 1990, Pump offered wearers a customised fit by using the namesake apparatus to pump air into a bladder that was embedded in the upper.


1991 - Nike Air Max BW

Like that Air Max 90 before it, more air was name of the game for the Air Max BW. While the kicks used the same tried and true Air-Sole unit that appeared in the Air Max 90, the 1991 release employed an even bigger window to highlight the Swoosh’s signature cushioning tech — hence the ‘BW’ moniker.


1991 - Nike Air Max 180

In the pursuit of increased air volume, Forland concluded that eliminating the foam between the Air-Sole unit and the outsole would create additional space for the Air-Sole itself. The idea came to fruition in the form of 1991’s Air Max 180, which offered an air unit that wasn’t just visible from the lateral and medial sides, but from beneath the shoe, too.


1993 - Nike Air Max 93

1993 saw a new construction technique brought to the Air-Sole: blow moulding. Typically used for foams, blow moulding allowed the team at the Swoosh to create Air-Sole units in new three-dimensional shapes that didn’t depend on air pressure to keep their form. The innovation meant that Air-Soles could be crafted to follow the shape of the shoe and the foot itself and they were employed by the Air Max 93 for the very first time.


1995 - Nike Air Max 95

Nike’s innovative blow-moulded Air-Sole units were employed to full effect two years after the introduction of the Air Max 93. Since the construction technique meant that Air-Soles could be crafted into a diverse array of 3-D shapes, the units could be designed to follow the curvature of the forefoot. Thus, the Air Max 95, designed by Sergio Lozano, became the first shoe to employ two separate blow-moulded Air-Sole units and also the first to feature visible forefoot air (previous air-cushioned shoes had embedded low-profile units within forefoot foam).


1995 - Nike Air Go LWP

The Air Zoom Spiridon is often believed to be the first Zoom-cushioned sneaker, but the technology actually debuted on the hardwood two years earlier with the Penny Hardaway-approved Air Go LWP. Originally called ‘Tensile Air,’ a lower-profile air unit saw Nike taking the opposite approach of the Air Max lineup as it sought to offer speedier play and better court feel for the likes of the Orlando Magic star. Though not visible from the midsole, the technology was actually highlighted through a tiny window on the outsole to show just how close the foot could get to the court.


1997 - Nike Air Max 97

For years, the design team in Beaverton had been looking create a fully foamless Air Max. That first step toward that goal came to fruition in 1997 when Nike took cues from the Air Max 95’s heel and forefoot units — and those of its followups — and combined them into a single interconnected Air-Sole unit. The full-length Air Max unit was born and utilised for the very first time by Christian Tresser’s bullet train-inspired Air Max 97.


1997 - Nike Air Zoom Spiridon

Low-profile ‘Tensile Air’ officially became Zoom in 1997 and was brought to the realm of performance runners with the celebrated Air Zoom Spiridon for those who favoured a swifter ride over thicker, more pillowy cushioning.,


1998 - Nike Air Max Plus

Following the creation of full-length Air-Soles with Nike’s Air Max 97, the possibilities for Max Air seemed limitless. Thus, the Swoosh began to focus on other air-centric innovations in the late 90s. The most obvious of these inventions was Tuned Air, which utilised physical structures in the medial side of the heel’s air unit to offer superior support and stability. Tuned Air debuted with the introduction of the Sean McDowell designed Air Max Plus.


2006 - Nike Air Max 360

The Swoosh finally realised its goal of a fully foamless Air Max with the debut of the Air Max 360 in 2006. Released nearly twenty years after the first-ever Air Max design, the aptly named 360 was highlighted by Caged Air technology, which finally eliminated foam stabilisation with the help of a cage-like structure that surrounded the full-length Max Air unit. The result was visible air that could be seen around the entirety of the shoe’s midsole.


2012 - Nike LeBron X

A LeBron basketball shoe may not share much in common with classic Air Maxes at first glance, but the LeBron X owes much to the likes of the Air Max 97 and 2006’s Air Max 360. Taking cues from the cushioning of those runners and the low-profile Zoom tech that had become a hardwood favourite following its Air Go LWP intro, the LeBron X sported the very first full-length visible Zoom Air unit.


2014 - Nike LeBron 12

Nike brought the King even closer to the court with the LeBron 12 in 2014. Completely transforming the LeBron line’s cushioning tech with a next-gen overhaul, the 12 made use of tiny hexagonal Zoom units in the forefoot that were mapped to pressure points to ensure the best performance possible. Nike even colour-coded the units and made them visible throughout the shoe’s translucent outsole to shine a spotlight on the innovation.


2015 - Nike Air Max '15

Max Air was always known for its plush, bouncy cushioning, but the moulded full-length units were never particularly flexible. That all changed, however, with the introduction of the Air Max 2015. The 2015 featured new horizontal tubular construction for the full-length Max Air unit itself and coupled the modification with flex grooves throughout the outsole to make it the most flexible full-length Air Max release to date.


2017 - Nike Air VaporMax

Billed as ‘the pinnacle of Air’ upon its 2017 debut, Nike’s breakthrough VaporMax unit acted as both midsole and outsole. While previous air units had needed a secondary rubber layer for protection and durability, breakthrough new technologies allowed Nike’s designers to incorporate the air and exterior layer into a single holistic unit — the VaporMax. Those same breakthroughs also meant the unit could maintain its form with elasticity, thus allowing the designers to ditch the inflexible structural areas used by previous units.


2018 - Nike Air Max 270

Air Maxes have long been a sneakerhead’s lifestyle staple and Nike finally alluded to this with the first-ever air unit intended specifically for casual wear (while the Air Safari was designed explicitly as the first lifestyle air shoe in 1987, it featured a unit originally created for runners). The 270 — a nod to the units employed by the Air Max 180 and Air Max 93 — stands a whopping 32mm tall and features the biggest heel volume displacement for an air unit. The result is a unit crafted for maximum cushioned comfort.


2019 - Nike Air Max 720

Nike are taking the promises of air cushioning to new heights — literally — in 2019. Building on the success of the 270, the 720 will have the most spring of any Air Max shoe ever thanks to a foot-cradling 360-degree form that stands 38mm tall.

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