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See Inside September 2009

The Paper Clip

Despite its shortcomings, the iconic design will likely stick around

People have fastened sheets of paper together more or less permanently ever since the Chinese invented the stuff in the first or second century A.D. Yet according to the Early Office Museum, the first bent wire paper clip wasn’t patented until 1867, by one Samuel B. Fay. The iconic shape of the Gem paper clip (the namesake of Gem Office Products Company) that we know today did not appear until around 1892, and it was never patented. Henry Petroski, the technology historian, wrote that its development had to await the availability of the right wire as well as machinery that could bend wire quickly enough for a box of clips to be sold for pennies.

Both the paper clip and the machine that makes it trace their origins to pin making. Office workers in the early 19th century stuck their papers together—literally—with pins; a pin design known as the T-pin is still advertised in office products catalogues today. Victorian-era pin-making machinery had already solved the problem of cheaply mass-converting wire to pins; adapting the machine’s talents to shaping wire was a relatively minor adjustment that made it possible for hosts of creative wire benders to dream of cashing in big.

Today paper clips made out of molded plastic, wire clips coated with colored plastic, and even semicircular sheets of aluminum that fold the top corners of the papers (and are thereby able to carry a logo or a favorite design) have come on the market. And you can still readily buy T-pins, owl clips, binder clips and ideal clips. Taken together, they have even made some inroads in the traditional Gem paper clip business.

But before you send a sketch of your new, improved design to Gem Office Products, consider this: the Gem paper clip can scratch or tear paper, catches on others of its kind in a box and, if spread too wide, slips off the papers it is intended to hold. The company once estimated that it received at least 10 letters a month suggesting alternative designs. Yet to most people, the Gem simply is the paper clip. It’s as frozen into office culture as the “qwerty” keyboard.

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