It is one of the most commonly-used items within an office or school, seen as a small device that many of its users would consider to be crucial when they need it, but forgettable when they don’t. Paperclips have been a ‘staple’ in the stationary industry for years, but who first came up with the idea of bending a small tube of metal in that shape?
There are a number of claimants to the invention of the paperclip, but the first patent for such an object was granted to American Samuel B Fay in 1867, with what was described as a bent wire used for attaching sheets of paper together, although this was merely a side-effect of Fay’s original intention (an object to bind tickets to fabric). At some point in the early 1870’s, though, The Gem Manufacturing Company (in England), began producing paperclips in the ‘looped’ design seen today, and although they are recognised nowadays as the inventor of this paperclip shape, the design was never patented by them. American William Middlebrook, meanwhile, completed a universal recognition of the design when he filed an accepted US patent for a machine that produced Gem-style paperclips in 1899.
A common misconception from many in the world is crediting the invention with Norwegian national icon Johan Vaaler, who had registered his more simplistic and less functional (rectangular and un-looped) design to German authorities in 1899, and in the USA in 1901.
While he is known as a ‘great Norwegian inventor’ who went on to become a Patent clerk himself, it is widely regarded that Vaaler only received the patents because there was not yet a market for the device in his native Norway (the reason he had thought the idea was original at first), and relaxed US patent laws which saw enough of a difference between the Vaaler and Gem designs to be considered ‘unique’, although it was only the latter which would become a well-known shape for the object.
Despite not being the true inventor of the paperclip, Vaaler’s work still had an impressive impact on his countrymen, with the paperclip now regarded as a ‘national symbol’. Around the rest of the world, the object has been useful in keeping important documents bound together, but also has other uses, as explained in this clip produced by The History Channel: