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Fascinating facts about the invention of the
Paper Clip
by William D. Middlebrook in 1899.

PAPER CLIP
AT A GLANCE:
The modern paper clip was patented on 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. Cushman and Denison  purchased the Middlebrook patent in 1899. That same year Cushman and Denison also trademarked the name "GEM" for their new paper clip.
THE STORY
RELATED INFO
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DID YOU KNOW?
Invention: paper clip in 1899
 © Microsoft Corporation "Clippit"
Definition: noun / paper clip, gem clip, paperclip
Function: A paper clip is a device which holds several sheets of paper together by means of pressure: it leaves the paper intact and can be easily removed.
Patent: 636,272 (US) issued November 7, 1899
Inventor: William D. Middlebrook  
Criteria: First practical. Modern prototype..
Nationality: American
Milestones:
1867 Samuel Fay invents and patents a Ticket Fastener that also can be used to hold paper
1899 William D. Middlebrook invents and patents paper clip and production machine
1899 Middlebrook sells patent to Cushman & Denison
1899 Cushman & Denison trademark the name GEM for their paper clip
1901 Johan Vaaler patents paper clip
1903 George McGill patents a paper clip that looks very similar to today's version
paper clip, gem paper clip, fastener, clasp, george middlebrook, cushman and denison, johan vaaler, samuel fay, george mvgill,  invention, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
The Story:
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.

The first paper clip was invented in 1867 by Samuel Fay. The patent (#64,088) was issued on April 23, 1867 for a Ticket Fastener. Fay 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 (#636,272) 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.

Cushman and Denison a manufacturing company already in the paper clip and office supply buisness 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 their are so many design possibilities. One of the most prolific inventors was George McGill who patent under his name or in conjunction with other inventors over 15 different designs from 1888 to 1903. His 1903 patent (#742,893) even shows a design that looks like Middlebrook's. But the inventor who is named the most often as the inventor is Johan Vaaler. He properly is named most often because the story surrounding his paper clip makes for good reading.

In 1899 a Norwegian named Johan Vaaler, patented the paper clip in Germany because Norway had no patent law at the time. Vaaler's device received an American patent (#675,761) 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. However 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.

One clear challenge to the Gem was patented (#1,985,866) 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. After a century, it still works.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
History of Office Equipment   from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
The Evolution of Useful Things
by Henry Petroski / Paperback - 288 pages / Vintage Books Reprint edition (March 1994)
This surprising book may appear to be about the simple things of life--forks, paper clips, zippers--but in fact it is a far-flung historical adventure on the evolution of common culture.
1000 Inventions & Discoveries
by Roger Bridgman / Hardcover: 256 pages / Dorling Kindersley Publishing; (2002)
Fascinating stories and vivid photographs and illustrations tell the tales of the developments in technology and natural science that have shaped our world. Profiles of the famous (and not-so-famous) men and women who have had "Eureka!" moments, a running timeline which puts the inventions and discoveries in historical context.
Paper Clip Science
by Steven W. Moje /
Paperback - 96 pages (April 1997) / Sterling Publications; ISBN: 0806943866
Simple and fun paper clip experiments.
Paper Clip Jewelry: A Paper Clip Jewelry Workshop (Out of print. Limited availability)
by Kelli Peduzzi / Paperback - 48 pages Bk&Acces edition (2000) / Pleasant Company Publications
All of us have thought on occasion, "How can such a simple idea be so beautiful" and this book illustrates the point. You will not believe what you can design with just paper clips and beads!"

ON THE SCREEN:
Office Wonders 
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / History Channel / Less than $25.00
Office Wonders explores the stories behind everything from the paper clip to the laser printer, showing how they were invented and developed and revealing what makes them tick. From chance discoveries never intended to wind up at work to the irony of labor saving devices and why they can actually create more work, we'll deconstruct your desktop and expose the wonders there.


ON THE WEB:

Corporate Design Foundation
The traditional paperclip is the essence of form follows function. After a century it still works.
(URL: www.cdf.org/cdf/atissue/vol4_1/Paper_Clip/paper_clip.html)
Getting a Grip - On Paper

Johann Vaaler, a Norwegian, traditionally gets the credit for the first paper clip in 1899. Article by Nancy M. Kendall also contains history of other office products.
(URL: www.csmonitor.com/durable/1999/03/09/p22s1.htm)
When were bent-wire paper clips introduced?
The first bent-wire paper clip was patented by Samuel B. Fay in 1867. It was originally intended primarily for attaching tickets to fabric, although the patent recognized that it could be used to attach paper items together.

(URL: www.earlyofficemuseum.com/paper_clips.htm)
Microsoft's Paperclip
Microsoft infamously introduced a cartoon character shaped like a paper clip in their Office 97 software suite, nicknamed "Clippit". It was intended to deliver useful information to users as an active help procedure, but it was largely perceived as an irritation by users, and became the subject of many parodies.
(URL: www.answers.com/topic/paperclip)

The Perfect GEM
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.
(URL: jacobs.indiana.edu/POM8e/Extra_Cases/PaperClips.htm)

The Paper Clip
William Middlebrook patented a machine that would make wire paper clips. In one corner of his patent drawing is the clip his machine would make. It has the round top and bottom so familiar today.
(URL: www.uh.edu/engines/epi769.htm)

Cushman & Denison Mfrs., New York, NY
In 1953 saw Esterbrook America take over Cushman & Denison, who had launched the Flo-Master refillable marker in 1951, and in 1960 Esterbrook Pens and Cushman & Denison in the U.K. were merged.
(URL: hans.presto.tripod.com/nibs/esterbrook02.html)


DID YOU KNOW?:

  • During the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II, Norwegians made the paper clip a symbol of national unity. Wearing a paper clip was often reason enough for arrest.
  • A giant paper clip in Oslo Norway was erected as a memorial to Johan Vaaler.
  • 18 billion paper clips are used annually just in the United States.
Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respective owners.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised September 28, 2005.
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