A lot of everyday objects have surprising and complex histories, and one of the best examples is the humble paper clip. Here are ten facts about this familiar object that you might not have known, with links to other sources if you find yourself drawn to the subject:
10. They are a triumph of modern engineering.
Just think about it for a minute. The paper clips we know are simple, elegant, and supremely functional; They bind sheets of paper and fabric together, firmly and reliably, without puncturing, marking or deforming them. They are easy to apply and to remove, even when they have been in place for years, using no tools of any sort beyond human fingers of average abilities.
And they do this without appreciably adding to the paper’s bulk; they lie flat and do not easily get snagged on surrounding objects. They are durable and reusable so many times, they can easily outlive us all if we do not manhandle them.
The reason they were never designed in antiquity is that they require a modern material: high tensile-strength, uniformly and reliably manufactured steel wire. Unlike sheet metal and fine metal rods, which have been available far longer, wire can be bent and twisted without structural damage.
As soon as the high-quality wire became available — basically the second half of the nineteenth century — paper clips began to appear.
9. No one knows who invented them.
Like many successful innovations, paper clips are claimed by a throng of would-be inventors and their present-day disciples.
The first such device we know of for certain, made from steel wire for attaching fabrics and papers, was granted U.S. patent number 64,088 on April 23, 1867 to one Samuel B. Fay. No images of Fay’s clip survive, however, and no one today entertains the suggestion that his design is the one we know and use today.
There is a popular but mistaken belief, still maintained in some circles, that today’s clip was the invention of Norwegian engineer Johan Vaaler. This has achieved something like mythic proportions in Norway. More on this later.
Others maintain — again erroneously — that the design was original with Derbyshire polymath Herbert Spencer. In truth, both men did invent metal devices for attaching papers together, but neither Vaaler’s nor Spencer’s design was as useful as our familiar clip, and neither was ever manufactured in bulk.
8. They are useful for a lot of purposes.
Again because of the adaptive strengths of modern steel wire, paper clips can be unbent and reshaped into makeshift tools for more uses than anyone can ever list.
We here at Office Kitten have observed paper clips in regular use as book marks, key rings, picture hangers and place markers for card files, just to name a few. One industry study has made the claim that the preponderance of paper clips are never used for their designed purpose, but are instead bent and refashioned for use as cleaning or prying instruments.
There are any number of electronic devices featuring a recessed “reset” or “emergency” button, accessible only by a long, thin rod. How do we press that reset button? A bent paper clip. Of course.
7. There are at least forty-seven patented types.
Mssrs. Fay, Spencer and Vaaler, mentioned above, are only a sample. Altogether, forty-five more U.S. patents have been granted for paper clips of various designs and descriptions. The interesting site Early Office Museum has images and details of most of them if you want to check them out. Here’s a link: http://www.earlyofficemuseum.com/paper_clips.htm.
Some of these designs went into production and a few of them are still in use today. The Ideal type and the Owl clip are familiar to millions of office workers throughout the industrialised world. The “Collette” paper clip, patented in 1921 and still in manufacture today, is a Gem clip with the addition of serrations along its length for a better grip.
6. They were manufactured in the UK in the 1870s.
Clips like ours were being manufactured in numbers in the UK by the Gem Manufacturing Company by the 1870s. They were in widespread use all over the UK soon after, and newspaper advertisements featuring their unmistakable shape appeared in the U.S. in the 1890s. The fact that these ads appear with no explanatory mention of the clips would seem to imply that they were familiar to the papers’ readers by that time.
The true source of this elegant, functional design was probably some bright but nameless employee of the Gem company. Our paper clips are still sometimes called “Gem clips”, and in Swedish the word for any paper clip is gem.
5. They have inspired a documentary film.
The documentary film Paper Clips, released in 2004 by Miramax Films, relates the activities of a group of schoolchildren in the small American town of Whitwell, Tennessee.
These children, in pursuit of a class project, began collecting paper clips in commemoration of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and other minorities murdered by the Nazis in the second world war. Their goal was to demonstrate the tragedy’s enormity by collecting one paper clip for every individual victim.
The students and their activities gained the attention of German journalists Peter and Dagmar Schroeder, who went on to publish a book, Das Büroklammer-Projekt (The Paper Clip Project) in September 2000, promoting the project in Germany. National attention in the U.S. followed.
4. There are artists using them as a medium.
Most notably, Italian Pietro D’Angelo.
You have to see these things to believe them. Here’s a link: www.pietrodangelo.it.
3. They have been used as a national symbol of Norway.
We told you earlier about Norwegian engineer Johan Vaaler’s dubious claim as the inventor of the paperclip. Well, it seems that many Norwegians have embraced this as a national cause.
Of course there is more to the story. During the Nazi occupation of the second world war, Norwegians were prohibited from wearing buttons or any other outward symbol of affiliation with the resistance. Because paper clips — supposedly a Norwegian invention — are intended to bind things together, they were adopted as a symbol of national solidarity.
Today a 23 ft (7 m) high statue of a paper clip stands in Oslo. Set there to commemorate the courage and resilience of Norwegian resistors during those grim years, it depicts the familiar Gem clip and not the actual clip designed by Johan Vaaler.
If you are ever in Oslo and you see the monument, you should probably keep this knowledge to yourself. Trust us on this.
2. They were the secret identifier of the French resistance.
This is a story very like the one from Norway, above.
The major difference has to do with language; the French describe a paperclip’s characteristic shape as deux gaules (two holes), a near-homonym for the name of the inspirational French anti-Nazi, Charles de Gaulle.
As in Norway, resistance members identified each other by the wearing of an innocuous-looking paper clip on a lapel or a shirt pocket.
1. You can turn one into a house.
At least, if you are as resourceful as one Kyle MacDonald.
An enterprising young Canadian, Kyle had a red paper clip and traded it for a pen. Then he traded the pen for a doorknob. And so on. After fourteen trades, he ended up with a house!
This is legend material. It’s all documented, among other places, on Kyle’s site, which is here: http://oneredpaperclip.blogspot.co.uk/.