Someone INVENTED it: The Paper Clip

The Paper Clip. How many have you used in your lifetime? How many have given their lives as a source of your amusement? They seem more like part of the natural environment than an invention. Yet, the modern paper clip is little more than 100 years old.

Like other inventions, the paper clip is more of a triumph of manufacturing than one of theory. People wouldn’t buy paper clips if they cost $1.00 a piece and so they must be cheap. That means not only a source of cheap wire but also a machine that can make them by the tens of thousands without any intervention.

The first documented paper clip patent belongs to Samuel B. Fay. His 1867 patent probably didn’t look like today’s paper clips, though. It’s hard to know who exactly invented those, except we do believe that by 1899 the Gem company was making paper clips that looked largely identical to the ones used today. In some cultures “gem” is even a generic word for paper clip.

The paper clip has been used as a last minute fastener, as an attention getter, as jewelry, and even as a quick way to weigh something. (Does it weigh more than 500 paper clips? If so it’s more than a pound.) Paper clips figure in easy chemistry experiments and they’ve been used to create quick electrical fixes that sometimes blow up in people’s faces. In the 2000s, many people kept a paper clip in a wallet or purse to reset an MP3 player; today it’s a fair tool to take a SIM card out of a phone.

Quite a life the humble paper clip has had, and it’s only been around for a century!