Paper clip

A paper clip (or sometimes paperclip) is a device which holds several sheets of paper together by means of pressure: it leaves the paper intact and can be quickly and easily removed, unlike the staple, which will damage the paper unless removed carefully, and will always leave two holes in the paper.

Shape and composition

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.


The first patent for the paper clip was awarded to Samuel B. Fay of the United States in 1867. It was designed to fasten labels to garments and textiles, but was also marketed as a paper clip. In 1877 Erlman J. Wright patented the first device explicitly designed as a paper clip, resembling present models. Several new U.S. patents followed during the last decades of the 19th century.

The most common type of wire paper clip still in use was never patented, but it was most likely in production in Britain as early as 1890 by "The Gem Manufacturing Company". An advertisement for Gem clips in 1899 referred to a patent, but this has never been documented. The American expert on technological innovations, professor Henry J. Petroski, has seen the Gem mentioned as early as 1883, but this could refer to some other product from the same British factory. The earliest known documentation of its existence is an advertisement for "Gem Paper Clips" published in August 1894 by Cushman & Denison, 172 9th Avenue, New York City. The "Gem" name was registered as a trade mark in the United States in 1904, and the application stated that the product—if it was in fact a paper clip—had been on the market since March 1892. Paper clips are still sometimes called "Gem clips", and in Swedish the word for any paper clip is "gem".

It has been claimed, though apparently without evidence, that Herbert Spencer, the originator of the term "survival of the fittest", invented the paper clip.

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. 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 of easy use, gripping without tearing, and storing without tangling have been difficult to improve on.

Recent innovations include multi-colored plastic-coated paper clips and spring-fastened binder clips.

Norwegian claim

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.

Vaaler probably succeeded in having his design patented abroad, despite the previous existence of a better product, because patent authorities at that time were quite liberal and rewarded any marginal modification of existing inventions. 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 Norwegian inventors would meet difficulties on the small home market.

Vaaler's patents expired quietly, while the "Gem" was used worldwide, including 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.

National symbol

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 were forbidden, such as flag pins or pins showing the cipher of the exiled King Haakon VII of Norway. 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 were severely punished. 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 wide-spread 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 Vaaller 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, the inventor of the paper clip.

Paper Clips Project

Johan Vaaler's fame as the paper clip inventor has spread worldwide, especially in the United States. In spite of recent findings by Henry Petroski and others, many websites still present this piece of misinformation. When eighth-graders at Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee were to learn about the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust, one teacher had the good idea of illustrating that mind-boggling number by collecting as many small and cheap objects—this was called the Paper Clips Project. According to one website, the paper clip was chosen "after they learned (that) Norwegians wore them on their clothes to show support for Jews during World War II". Another site elaborates this story even further: "That symbol of resistance originally honored Johann Vaaler, the Norwegian Jew who invented the paper clip". None of these statements is true. Vaaler was not a Jew, he did not invent the common paper clip, and Norwegians who wore them did not do so to protest the tragic fate of the Jews, but to show loyalty to the King and the Government. But the project was a success — far more than the required 6 million clips were collected.

During promotion of the film which documents the middle school project, the film's promoters contacted and partnered with Baumgarten's Office Products in Atlanta, Georgia. Baumgarten's is the company that manufactures Plastiklips and other fastening devices, constructed displays made of green plastic paper clips shaped into the Star of David to assist with the films promotion at theaters around the United States. Hans Baumgarten, Baumgarten's treasurer and his family of Jewish descent, left Nazi Germany, avoiding death camps.

Baumgarten's Plastiklip was invented by the German Kurt Lorber, who has been a partner with Baumgarten's since WWII.

Other uses

Wire is versatile, and the most commonplace wire is in paper clips. Thus a paper clip is a useful accessory in many kinds of mechanical work including computer work: the metal wire can be unfolded with a little force. Several devices call for a very thin rod to push a recessed button which the user might only rarely need. This is seen on most CD-ROM drives as an "emergency eject" should the power fail; also on early floppy disk drives (including the early Macintosh). 1st generation iPhones required a paper clip to eject the sim card and some Palm PDAs advise the use of a paper clip to reset the device. The track ball can be removed from early Logitech pointing devices using a paper clip as the key to the bezel. A paper clip bent into a "U" can be used to start an ATX PSU without connecting it to a motherboard (connect the green to a black on the Motherboard header). One or more paper clips can make a loopback device for a RS232 interface (or indeed many interfaces). A paper clip could be installed in a Commodore 1541 disk-drive as a flexible head-stop. Paper clips have been used (unsafely) to replace fuses.

Paper clips can be bent into a crude but sometimes effective lock picking device. You can unchain some sorts of handcuffs using paper clip. There are two approaches. First one is to unfold the clip in a line and then the end to be twisted in right angle trying to imitate a key and using it to lift the lock fixator. The second approach, which is more feasible but needs some practice, is to use the semi-unfolded clip kink for lifting when the clip is inserted through the hole where the handcuffs are closed.

Kyle MacDonald took one paper clip and progressively traded it into a house. The Canadian blogger began with a red paper clip and posted it on, later trading it for a pen. MacDonald kept trading things until he finally traded a movie role for a two-story house in Kipling, Saskatchewan.

Other fastening devices



  • Petroski, Henry. The Evolution of Useful Things. New York: Knopf, 1992. ISBN 0-679-74039-2. Includes a comprehensive history of the evolution of paper clip design.

External links


  • Paper clip—E. P. Bugge

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