Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 663:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 663.

Today, zippers teach us a lesson in design. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Velcro is a marvelous new invention. It's swept our imaginations in the past decade. Every time we turn around we see Velcro replacing buttons and Zippers in some new and imaginative way. And it's all because a clever inventor had the wits to copy the cocklebur's tenacious grip on our clothing.

The Zipper caught our fancy the same way in the 1920's -- but only after it'd taken a whole generation to find its modern form. Writer Rochelle Chadakoff tells about that process.

In 1890, we buttoned or hooked high shoes and boots -- if we didn't lace them up. Putting on boots was once a tiresome business. Then Whitcomb Judson created something he called a "clasp and unclasp unlocker." He invented a slider that ran over a row of boot hooks, drawing them together.

Judson's unlocker was the clumsy precursor of the Zipper. He showed it off at the Chicago World's Fair without much effect. Twelve years later he tried to improve it. When he died in 1909, it was still a curiosity -- a sartorial side road.

Then in 1913 Gideon Sundback improved the design into some thing that looked a lot like our modern Zipper. It had two rows of teeth on opposing cloth tapes. Sundback set up the Hookless Fastener Company and went off to sell fasteners to the military.

The Army Air Service and the Navy placed orders. Then the new fastener reached the public in 1921. That year, B.F. Good rich ordered 170,000 fasteners for its new rubber galoshes. Goodrich also coined the trade name, Zipper. Stories on that vary. Was it onomatopoeia -- an attempt to imitate the sound of a Zipper? More likely they were evoking the slang word for speed, which was zip.

In any case we use the trade name, Zipper, the same way we use the trade name XeroX for anyone's photocopy system -- the way the English use the trade name Hoover for any vacuum cleaner.

By 1932, Aldous Huxley suggested the idea of a Zippered fly in his Brave New World. When I was a child all those new Zippers had become an enchantment in the otherwise dreary Depression.

Now Zippers are everywhere, and we wonder: "Why were they so slow to catch on -- and Velcro so fast?" The answer is, the first Zippers violated a basic principle of design.

Judson began by trying to imitate the action of human hands hooking up a boot. Velcro broke entirely with anything we'd ever done with clothing. The Zipper couldn't emerge until it too made that kind of break with its past. Invention is like that. It is pure radicalism. Good design and good invention occur when we shed the things we once knew -- and begin life anew.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Chadakoff, R., 100-year-old zipper has come a long way. The Houston Post, Thursday, December 12, 1991.

Judson's original 1893 clasp-unlocker patent for opening and closing shoes.

A typical plastic zipper for present-day clothing.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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