Paper Clips

When was the ball point pen invented? What about paper clips, or fax machines? Vic Hollefruend, our Retail Furniture Manager, is on the case, researching and compiling everything you would want to know about who, where, why, when, and how of office supplies. We are pleased to present Vic’s History of Office Stuff.

Functional Form

Consider the humble paper clip: It’s just a thin piece of steel wire bent into a double-oval shape, but over the past century, no one has invented a better method of holding loose sheets of paper together.

The common paper clip is a wonder of simplicity and function, so it seems puzzling that it wasn’t invented earlier. For centuries, straight pins, string and other materials were used as fasteners, but they punctured or damaged the papers. While the paper clip seems like such an obvious solution, its success had to wait for the invention of steel wire, which was “elastic” enough to be stretched, bent and twisted.

Where It All Began

paper_clipsThe first paper clip was invented in 1867 by Samuel Fay. He specified in the description that in addition to attaching tickets to garments it could be used to hold papers together. Fay’s design along with the 50 other designs patented prior to 1899 are not even close to the modern design we know today.

But the modern paper clip existed on paper as early as April 27, 1899. It appears on a patent issued November 9, 1899 to William D. Middlebrook of Waterbury, Connecticut. Middlebrook invented not just the paper clip but he also invented a machine to produce the paper clip. The patent drawings clearly show the final product, the common paper clip. In his description he makes reference that both the machine and the paper clip design are to be covered by the patent.

Making a Better Clip

Cushman and Denison a manufacturing company already in the paper clip and office supply business purchased the Middlebrook patent in 1899. That same year Cushman and Denison also trademarked the name “GEM” for their new paper clip. The design was perfected further by rounding the sharp points of the wire so they wouldn’t catch, scratch or tear the papers. By 1907, the Gem brand rose to prominence as the perfect paper clip that “will hold securely your letters, documents, or memoranda without perforation or mutilation until you wish to release them.” Since then, literally zillions of paper clips have been sold.

Over the years, many different inventors have been credited with the invention of the paper clip. First because so many patents were issued and second because there are so many design possibilities. One of the most prolific inventors was George McGill who patented under his name or in conjunction with other inventors, over 15 different designs from 1888 to 1903. His 1903 patent even shows a design that looks like Middlebrook’s. However, the individual named the most often as the inventor is Johan Vaaler because the story surrounding his paper clip makes for good reading.

Clipped Solidarity

In 1899 a Norwegian, Johan Vaaler, patented the paper clip in Germany because Norway had no patent law at the time. His device received an American patent in 1901. Vaaler’s American patent drawing shows several kinds of paper clips, from square to triangular to one that looks a lot like the elliptical ones in wide use today. But the wire does not form the familiar loop within a loop. The problem was, Vaaler did nothing with his invention.

Norwegians have proudly embraced their countryman, Johan Vaaler, as the true inventor. During the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II, Norwegians made the paper clip a symbol of national unity. Prohibited from wearing buttons imprinted with the Norwegian king’s initials, they fastened paper clips to their lapels in a show of solidarity and opposition to the occupation. Wearing a paper clip was often reason enough for arrest.

Tradition Holds True

One clear challenge to the Gem was patented in 1934 and has come to be known as the Gothic clip; because its loops are pointed more to resemble Gothic arches than the rounded Romanesque ones of the Gem. Henry Lankenau’s patent application for the “perfect Gem” also listed ease of applying to papers as one of the invention’s advantages. Although colorful plastic materials and new shapes have challenged the double-oval steel-wire paper clip over the years, none has proven superior. The traditional paper clip is the essence of form follows function, and after a century, it still works.

A little piece of wire + a little tinkering = fortune…….Vic

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