Everyday Objects

Paperclips


I’m willing to bet you don’t spend much time thinking about paperclips. After all, what’s there to think about? Just a bendy bit of wire that helps keep papers together. Yet that’s the beauty of it: the paperclip’s design hasn’t changed in one hundred and forty years, because it’s just that good! But that doesn’t mean the paperclip had an easy ride. Let’s take a look at the history of the paperclip:

Up until the 1800s, you would use a sharp, stabby pin to fasten your pieces of paper together. Not only was this impractical because pins would tear the paper, but it also left a lot of administrators with bloodied thumbs. So there was a massive demand for a device which could fasten papers together easily – and boy, did the inventors deliver. The first patent for a paperclip goes to the American Samuel B. Fay in 1867. However, Fay’s design and the similar designs of 50 other patents before the turn of the century are not considered similar enough to our modern paperclips, to count as true ‘origins’. 

Because of this confusion, there are loads of unsupported claims on the invention of the paperclip: one of those being Herbert Spencer, the fella who came up with the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest.’ Although Spencer did claim to have created a ‘binding-pin’, it looked more like a brass fastener than a paperclip. Too bad for Mr. Fay and Mr. Spencer – but great for us. It turns out that the type of paperclip we use most often today – the Gem paper clip – never got patented. We reckon this kind of paperclip was produced by The Gem Manufacturing Company in 1870’s Britain. This is why paperclips are called ‘gems’ in Swedish, and why, across the world, some people still call paperclips ‘Gem clips’. In case you were wondering, the Gem paperclip is made just using one piece of four inch steel wire, twisted in on itself three times. This simple design was so good that we haven’t found a reason to invent something better in over a century. 

Before and since then, an incredible amount of patents have been registered for different kinds of paperclips, so we can’t point to a single inventor. But while we can’t pin down (a joke for those of you who’ve been paying attention) the creator of the paperclip we know and love today, we do know who invented the machine that made them. William Middlebrook from Connecticut patented a machine for making wire paperclips in 1899. This machine had the capability to produce thousands of paperclips an hour with no human involvement, so costs were super low. 1 point to Mr. Middlebrook, and 0 points to Mr Fay and Mr Spencer!

It’s wild to think that the same paperclips we use today are so useful, we haven’t found a reason to change them since the nineteenth century. Now that’s a claim not many inventions can make! Perhaps this is a principle of excellent design; not always constant improvement, but finding out what works, and sticking with it.

Words by Quinn Clark
Research by Stephanie Crowe
Illustration by Noni Farragher-Hanks