The paper clip

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Object lesson No1

Paper clips, those little loops of wire that litter work surfaces, are 100 years old. A Norwegian, Johan Vaaler, took out the first patent in 1899, the same year that an American, William Middlebrook of Massachusetts, registered a machine for making them.

Soon they were being marketed as"the only satisfactory device for temporary attachment of papers". Previously, documents had been bundled up with ribbon or string, or kept together with a clothes pin. Now office workers were urged not to"mutilate", their documents with pins - a practice with obvious health and safety implications.

Earlier patents - including one for soft, bendable clips - had attempted to solve the problem of disorganised desktops, but Mr Vaaler's version marked a breakthrough in manuscript management.

His paper clips were square and triangular, but in the early 1900s a British company produced the Gem, the familiar oval clip most commonly ued today. Other models - the Non-skid, the Owl and the Ideal - have their uses, but nobody has really improved on the Gem. It's a design challenge - to make something that retains its grip, can be used repeatedly and won't tear or mark the paper - that has stood the test of time.

Even though they are an office essential, many paper clips never get to do what they were designed for. One study found that, of the billions made every year, three out of ten are lost and only one in ten is ever used for its proper purpose.

But the much-neglected paper clip's finest hour came during the Second World War when, in homage to its creator and as a sign of solidarity, the people of occupied Norway took to wearing them on their lapels. Some were even imprisoned by the Nazis for their impudence. The people of a nation were bound together by their countryman's invention and, to this day, the humble paper clip remains a symbol of resistance.


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