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By Scott Jacobs

In the waning days of my business, I took inventory of all the stuff I’d accumulated over the years. I made lists of the tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment in my shop, assigning to each prices etched in my mind because the cost had been so dear. When the auctioneer arrived, he methodically slashed the prices in half. But he left untouched a whole category of office supplies.  “Keep the paperclips,” he said. “They never lose their value.”

Twelve years later, I found myself rummaging through the basement to retrieve the last box of paperclips in my possession. The abundance of paperclips we bought always astonished me; but it was only when the supply ran out that I appreciated them.

I have used paperclips as pipe cleaners, lock pickers, fish hooks, bread bag twists, paint stirrers, glue spreaders, hole pokers, pants buttons, ornament hangers, key rings, bracelets, cotter pins, chip bag closers, wood etchers, computer reset keys, and, occasionally, for the purpose they were intended: clipping two pieces of paper together.

The Elusive Paperclip Patent

The first patent for a bent wire fastener was awarded in the United States to Samuel B. Fay in 1867, according to the Early Office Museum. Fay’s clip was designed to attach tickets to fabric––although the patent office recognized it could also be used to attach papers together. Over the next 35 years, some 50 other patents were granted for similar devices––all functional––but none turned out to have the shape and functionally of the paperclip we use today. That clip––known as the Gem clip––was first manufactured in Britain in the early 1870’s by the Gem Manufacturing Company.

An 1883 article about “Gem Paper-Fasteners” praised them for being “better than ordinary pins” for “binding together papers on the same subject, a bundle of letters, or pages of a manuscript.” By 1894, Cushman & Denison, an office supply company in New York, was advertising “Gem Paper Clips” in The Book-Keeper. But the company never filed for a patent, although it registered “Gem” as a trademark in 1904.

Torsion versus Elasticity

The Gem clip is characterized by the almost two full loops made by the wire. When a moderate number of sheets are inserted between the two “tongues” of the clip, the tongues are forced apart and cause torsion in the bend of the wire to grip the sheets together. If you try to bind too many sheets, the wire exceeds its elasticity, resulting in permanent deformation. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

But when you unfold the metal wire, it takes on a whole new shape and purpose; its pointed end can be used to unlock the “eject” button on computer CD-roms, replace SIM cards on iPhones and other handheld devices, remove the bezel from Logitech track balls, and, when re-shaped into a U, even start a computer power supply without connecting to a motherboard. If you have a creative mind, the paperclip can be anything you want it to be.

Johan Vaaler in 1887 as a student of the Christiania University.

Norway States Its Claim

The paperclip is nowhere more renown than in Norway, which claims (falsely, it turns out) to be its country of origin. Norwegian dictionaries are fond of attributing the invention of the paperclip to a young manager in a Norwegian patent office name Johan Vaaler, who filed his first patent for a paperclip in Germany in 1899 and a second in the United States in 1901. Why he chose those countries is a matter of some speculation. Patent law at the time was quite liberal, and he may have believed his invention had a better shot at widespread acceptance if it were registered in a more industrialized country.

If so, Vaaler was a bit delusional. His clip lacked the last turn of the wire common in Gem clips––making it more difficult to insert paper sheets––and his design never went into mass production. That did not keep the Norwegians from issuing a commemorative stamp in 1999 on the 100th anniversary of Vaaler’s patent, however, nor diminish Vaaler’s standing as the exemplar of Norwegian inventiveness.

The Norwegian fascination with the paperclip dates back to World War II when patriots wore a paperclip in their lapel as a symbol of their resistance to the German occupation. The paperclip denoted solidarity (“we are bound together”) but local Nazis soon banned the practice, imposing severe fines on those who wore them.

The giant paper clip in Sandvika, Norway.

That solidarity was itself commemorated in 1989 at a college outside Oslo where a giant paperclip statue almost 7 meters high was erected in honor of Vaaler, although the monument uses as its model the Gem-type clip, not the one patented by Vaaler.

“Paperclips” The Movie

In 1998, 8th graders at the Whitwell middle school in southeastern Tennessee–– inspired by the legend that Norwegians wore paperclips to show their support of the Jews during World War II and presuming the inventive Vaaler himself was a Jew (both not true)––came upon the idea of collecting paperclips to represent the 6 million Jews exterminated in the Nazi holocaust.

The project was a huge success and became the subject of a 2004 documentary titled “Paper Clips” that was subsequently distributed around the world by Miramax Films. At last count, the Whitwell project had accumulated over 30 million paperclips––the first 6 million were shaped into a star of David that was used in the movie promotion–– and schoolchildren in Canada and Croatia have replicated the project.

Despite its cloudy past, the paperclip endures today without any fancy marketing campaign not so much because it binds papers together, but because it is so elastic in form and function. It is small and cheap and insignificant, until you need one; then it is essential. Under the right circumstances, it can be the proverbial nail that saves the shoe that saves the horse that saves the battle that wins the war: proof positive that nothing is small and cheap, or insignificant,  if you put it to good use.

I think it’s time to buy another box.


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