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
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