Many daily objects — such as the key, or the book, or the phone — evolve over time in gradual ways, and in particular the 20th century revolutionized, simplified, or technologized the overwhelming majority of the items that you carry in your hand during an ordinary day.
But if you could step into an office in 1895—walking past horse-drawn buses and rows of wooden telephone switchboard cabinets—you might find a perfectly recognizable, shiny silver paper clip sitting on a desk. What was then a brand-new technology is now, well over a century later, likely to be in the same place, ready to perform the same tasks. Why did the paper clip find its form so quickly, and why has it stuck with us for so long?
As early as the 13th century, historical accounts show the fastening papers together. At this time , people placed ribbon into parallel incisions in the upper left corner of pages. Later, people began to wax the ribbons, making them stronger and easier to remove and redo. It was this way that people clamped papers together for the next six hundred years.
In 1835, John Ireland Howe, a New York physician, invented a machine for mass-producing straight pins, which became a common way of fastening papers together (although they were not originally designed for this purpose). Straight pins were intended to be used for sewing and tailoring, to fasten fabric together temporarily.
Johan Vaaler, a Norwegian inventor with degrees in electronics, science, and mathematics, invented the paperclip in 1899. He received a patent for his design from Germany in 1899, as Norway had no patent laws at that time.
Vaaler was an employee at a local invention office when he created the paperclip. He received an American patent in 1901. The patent abstract says, “It consists of forming same of a spring material, such as a piece of wire, that is bent to a rectangular, triangular, or otherwise shaped hoop, the end parts of which wire piece form members or tongues lying side by side in contrary directions.” Vaaler was the first person to patent a paperclip design, although other unpatented designs might have existed first.
American inventor Cornelius J. Brosnan filed for an American patent for a paperclip in 1900. He called his invention the “Konaclip.”
Until this omnipresent bureau staple (sorry) came along, people used pins, ribbons, string and other workarounds to protect paper sheaves. While inventors had experimented with wire wrapped in loops, Gem Ltd. of Britain clinched the concept with two condensed ovals. This also created enough torsion in the fastener and friction between the pages to hold everything together.
Connecticut entrepreneur William Middlebrook patented a clip-winding machine in 1899, and American Clip Co. started cranking out the indispensable office supply stateside four years later. Today, its factory in Mississippi spits out 1,600 of them every minute. The Gem paperclip however was never patented.
People have been re-inventing the paperclip over and over again. The designs that have been the most successful are the Gem with its double oval shape, the “non-skid” which held in place well, the “ideal” used for thick wads of paper, and the “owl” paperclip that does not get tangled up with other paperclips.
Throughout World War II Norwegians were prohibited to wear any buttons with their king’s likeness or initials on them. They began to wear paperclips in protest, since the paperclips were a Norwegian innovation whose original purpose was to tie together. This was a protest against the Nazi occupation and would have had them arrested by carrying a paperclip.
Because so many paper clip designs were initially protected by patents, manufacturers had to keep coming up with new designs. Additionally, there is not a single paper clip design that is ideal for all purposes.
There have been 65 different types of paper clips identified by the Early Office Museum and listed on their website. From the first patent in 1867, to the Vee-Clip first marketed in 1966, to an unidentified Serbian clip from 2008, the clips vary vastly in design, shape and size.
The one paper clip that has withstood the test of time is the Gem Paper Clip (introduced in 1892). Its design is considered to be “perfect”, and it has even been featured in a Museum of Modern Art Exhibit.
While it may not be absolutely perfect in every way, the Gem Paper Clip has almost every feature mentioned above, and its output is above average on almost every level compared to other paper clip designs. The clips usually work better in some respects but worse in others when changes are made to the Gem Paper Clip design.
The metal wire of a paperclip can be easily unfolded. Some devices allow a very thin rod to push a recessed button which may only occasionally be required by the user. It is used as a “emergency eject” on most CD-ROM drives, should the power fail. Various smartphones involve the use of a long , thin device to remove the SIM card, like a paperclip. Paperclips can also be bent into a sometimes effective lock-picking device. Some types of handcuffs can be unfastened using paper clips.
Check out my related post: How was the band-aid invented?