A paper clip is usually a thin wire in a looped shape that takes advantage of the elasticity and strength of the materials of its construction (usually steel or some other metal, but sometimes plastic) to compress and therefore hold together two or more pieces of paper by means of torsion and friction. Some other kinds of paper clip use a two-piece clamping system.
Recent innovations include multi-colored plastic-coated paper clips and spring-fastened binder clips.
According to the Early Office Museum, the first patent for a bent wire paper clip was awarded in the United States to Samuel B. Fay, in 1867. This clip was originally intended primarily for attaching tickets to fabric, although the patent recognized that it could be used to attach papers together. Fay received U.S. patent 64,088 on April 23, 1867. Although functional and practical, Fay’s design along with the 50 other designs patented prior to 1899 are not considered reminiscent of the modern paperclip design known today. Another notable paper clip design was also patented in the United States by Erlman J. Wright in 1877. This clip was advertised at that time for use in fastening newspapers.
The most common type of wire paper clip still in use, the Gem paper clip, was never patented, but it was most likely in production in Britain already in the early 1870s by “The Gem Manufacturing Company”, according to the American expert on technological innovations, Professor Henry J. Petroski. He refers to an 1883 article about “Gem Paper-Fasteners”, praising them for being “better than ordinary pins” for “binding together papers on the same subject, a bundle of letters, or pages of a manuscript”. Since the 1883 article had no illustration of this early “Gem”, it may have been different from modern paper clips of that name. The earliest documentation of its existence is an advertisement for “Gem Paper Clips” published by Cushman & Denison, 172 9th Avenue, New York City, in The Book-Keeper, August 1894, p. 6. In 1904 Cushman & Denison registered a trade mark for the “Gem” name in connection with paper clips. The announcement stated that it had been used since March 1, 1892, which may have been the time of its introduction in the United States. Paper clips are still sometimes called “Gem clips”, and in Swedish the word for any paper clip is “gem”.
Definite proof that the modern type of paper clip was well known in 1899 at the latest, is the patent granted to William Middlebrook of Waterbury, Connecticut on April 27 of that year for a “Machine for making wire paper clips.” The drawing clearly shows that the product is a perfect clip of the Gem type. The fact that Middlebrook did not mention it by name, suggests that it was already well known at the time. Since then countless variations on the same theme have been patented. Some have pointed instead of rounded ends, some have the end of one loop bent slightly to make it easier to insert sheets of paper, and some have wires with undulations or barbs to get a better grip. In addition, purely aesthetic variants have been patented, clips with triangular or round shapes. But the original Gem type has for more than a hundred years proved to be the most practical, and consequently by far the most popular. Its qualities—ease of use, gripping without tearing, and storing without tangling—have been difficult to improve upon.
It has been claimed, though apparently without evidence, that Herbert Spencer, the originator of the term “survival of the fittest”, invented the paper clip. Spencer claimed in his autobiography to have invented a “binding-pin” that was distributed by Ackermann & Company, and he shows a drawing of the pin in his Appendix I (following Appendix H). This pin looked more like a modern cotter pin than a modern paper clip, but it was designed to hold sheets of paper together. It is approximately 15 cm unfolded.
A Norwegian, Johan Vaaler (1866–1910), has erroneously been identified as the inventor of the paper clip. He was granted patents in Germany and in the United States (1901) for a paper clip of similar design, but less functional and practical, because it lacked the last turn of the wire. Vaaler probably did not know that a better product was already on the market, although not yet in Norway. His version was never manufactured and never marketed, because the superior Gem was already available.
Long after Vaaler’s death his countrymen created a national myth based on the false assumption that the paper clip was invented by an unrecognised Norwegian genius. Norwegian dictionaries since the 1950s have mentioned Vaaler as the inventor of the paper clip, and that myth later found its way into international dictionaries and much of the international literature on paper clips.
The giant paper clip in Sandvika, Norway. It shows the Gem, not the one patented by Vaaler.
Vaaler probably succeeded in having his design patented abroad, despite the previous existence of more useful paper clips, because patent authorities at that time were quite liberal and rewarded any marginal modification of existing inventions. Johan Vaaler began working for Alfred J. Bryns Patentkontor in Kristiania in 1892 and was later promoted to office manager, a position he held until his death. As the employee of a patent office, he could easily have obtained a patent in Norway. His reasons for applying abroad are not known, but it is possible that he had an exaggerated confidence in his own invention and wanted to secure the commercial rights internationally. Also, he may have been aware that a Norwegian manufacturer would find it difficult to introduce a new invention abroad, starting from the small home market. Vaaler’s patents expired quietly, while the “Gem” was used worldwide, also in his own country. The failure of his design was obvious — it was too impractical. Without the two full loops of the fully developed paper clip, it was difficult to insert sheets of paper into his clip. One could manipulate the end of the inner wire so that it could receive the sheet, but the outer wire was a dead end because it could not exploit the torsion principle. The clip would instead stand out like a keel, perpendicular to the sheet of paper. The impracticality of Vaaler’s design may easily be demonstrated by cutting off the last outer loop and one long side from a regular Gem clip.
The originator of the Norwegian paper clip myth was an engineer of the national patent agency who visited Germany in the 1920s to register Norwegian patents in that country. He came across Vaaler’s patent, but failed to detect that it was not the same as the then-common Gem-type clip. In the report of the first fifty years of the patent agency, he wrote an article in which he proclaimed Vaaler to be the inventor of the common paper clip. This piece of information found its way into some Norwegian encyclopedias after World War II.
Events of that war contributed greatly to the mythical status of the paper clip. Patriots wore them in their lapels as a symbol of resistance to the German occupiers and local Nazi authorities when other signs of resistance, such as flag pins or pins showing the cipher of the exiled King Haakon VII of Norway were forbidden. Those wearing them did not yet see them as national symbols, as the myth of their Norwegian origin was not commonly known at the time. The clips were meant to denote solidarity and unity (“we are bound together”). The wearing of paper clips was soon prohibited, and people wearing them could risk severe punishment.
The leading Norwegian encyclopedia mentioned the role of the paper clip as a symbol of resistance in a supplementary volume in 1952, but did not yet proclaim it a Norwegian invention. That information was added in later editions. According to the 1974 edition, the idea of using the paper clip to denote resistance originated in France. A clip worn on a lapel or front pocket could be seen as “deux gaules” (two posts or poles) and be interpreted as a reference to the leader of the French Resistance, General Charles de Gaulle.
The post-war years saw a widespread consolidation of the paper clip as a national symbol. Authors of books and articles on the history of Norwegian technology eagerly seized it to make a thin story more substantial. They chose to overlook the fact that Vaaler’s clip was not the same as the fully developed Gem-type clip. In 1989 a giant paper clip, almost 7 meters high, was erected on the campus of a commercial college near Oslo in honour of Vaaler, ninety years after his invention was patented. But this monument shows a Gem-type clip, not the one patented by Vaaler. The celebration of the alleged Norwegian origin of the paper clip culminated in 1999, one hundred years after Vaaler submitted his application for a German patent. A commemorative stamp was issued that year, the first in a series to draw attention to Norwegian inventiveness. The background shows a facsimile of the German “Patentschrift”. However, the figure in the foreground is not the paper clip depicted on that document, but the much better-known “Gem”. In 2005, the national biographical encyclopedia of Norway (Norsk biografisk leksikon) published the biography of Johan Vaaler, stating he was the inventor of the paper clip.