Today, a look at the unfinished paper clip. 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.
Some years ago, I sent a
paper off to an editor. I happened to put it
together with a paper clip I'd carried back from
Jugoslavia. He was delighted. He collected paper
clips. This was one he hadn't seen. After that, I
found a different clip for everything I sent him. I
never ran out of variations.
In this series we've seen that the true mother of
invention is the creative pleasure it gives us. The
vast variety of paper clips testifies to the
pleasure they've given their inventors. Still, the
paper clip did fulfill an old and nagging need.
Until this century we bundled papers with ribbon or
string. If the sheaf was small enough, we used a
straight pin -- even a clothespin.
Engineer/historian Henry Petroski has looked into
this problem. He finds a lot of late-19th-century
experimentation but only one patent, from 1887. It
was a soft metal clip you could bend into place to
Now: pick up a modern paper clip and study its
complex simplicity. It is a wondrous piece of
compressed ingenuity. The Norwegian Johan Vaaler is
usually called the inventor of the paper clip.
Norway had no patent office, so he filed an
American patent for a set of square and triangular
That was in 1901. And maybe it was the first paper
clip patent. But there's a catch. The fully evolved
paper clip we use today showed up two years earlier
in an 1899 patent. The catch is, it wasn't a
paper-clip patent. Instead, William Middlebrook
patented a machine that would make wire paper
In one corner of his patent drawing is the clip his
machine would make. It has the round top and bottom
so familiar today. We call that the Gem paper clip
because Middlebrook invented his machine for the
Gem Company, in England.
Still, the Gem is only a compromise solution to a
very hard problem. Consider the pitfalls waiting
for a new paper clip. It should exert a clinging
grip. It shouldn't tangle with other clips in a
box. It should be easy to apply and remove. It
shouldn't tear the paper or leave rust marks. It
should be cheap and easy to make. Its use should be
One Gem clip maker said he got ten letters a month
suggesting improvements. But people could improve
one area only at the expense of another.
So the paper clip remains as a tantalizing exercise
in elegance and sophistication. It dangles a
lingering challenge. For this invention is not yet
done. We still wait for the perfect paper clip. And
Maybe it is YOU who will, finally, give it to us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds