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an elegant loop within a loop of springy steel wire.
July 27, 2012 9:57 PM   Subscribe

The Perfection of the Paper Clip - It was invented in 1899. It hasn’t been improved upon since.

About.com claims Johann Valer as the inventor in 1899, while Ideafinder credits William Middlebrook, also in 1899. The Daily Mail informs us that 'the paper clip is the invention we can't live without.' The Early Office Museum has a history of the paper clip, with examples and images of the variations through the years. The paperclip you are familiar with is known as the 'Gem.' The History Channel covers 'The Humble Paper Clip' (Youtube). Of course, one red paperclip (previously) can get you quite far indeed...

Previously on MetaFilter: Pull It Together

Vaguely related: Operation Paperclip 'was the codename under which the US intelligence and military services extricated scientists from Germany, during and after the final stages of World War II.'
posted by the man of twists and turns (40 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
"It hasn’t been improved upon since."

Sure it has.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:23 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Binder clips != paperclips.

Yes, they work great for large stacks of papers. But would you use a binder clip to attach 2, 3, 5, or even 10 sheets of paper together? Especially if you intended to put those into a stack of other papers and expected the stack to still behave like a stack of papers?

No, you wouldn't.

I do remember sometime 20-30 years ago, there was a bit of a vogue for paperclips which were sort of based on triangles rather than ovals. And then there were the plastic paperclips... as if that was some sort of actual alternative. (Yes, they would break rather than bend -- that's a bug, not a feature.)

I think the most fascinating alternative office supply innovation I've encountered is the staple-less stapler. I've seen many variations on this theme, and a lot of them work pretty well, and some of them work not at all.

But the paperclip? It's reusable, it's simple, it's incredibly cheap... It's hard to improve on the basic simplicity of that. Sometimes human ingenuity in a pre-computer age comes up with something so incredibly useful and simple and basic that it likely will never find anything better. The paperclip seems to be one of those things.
posted by hippybear at 10:34 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


A binder clip, Chocolate Pickle, is not the same thing. It has three parts. Part of the point of the FPP is the simplicity of the paperclip--just one piece of wire, twisted. Going by that measure, I think there is a strong case that the design has not been improved on. That's not to say there aren't other ways of holding pieces of paper together, but that's not the point.
posted by oneironaut at 10:35 PM on July 27, 2012


It hasn’t been improved upon since.
Sure it has.
posted by hincandenza at 10:40 PM on July 27, 2012 [14 favorites]


hincandeza, for that you must die. Pistols at dawn!
posted by Alnedra at 10:42 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a ton of paperclips from an aborted art project years ago. I don't really have enough loose paper at home or work to use them but I love them for two reasons.

1. When I do need to clip paper, they are perfect.

2. I can bend them to do things other than clip paper. Remember the tiny hole in CD-ROM drives you could poke the end of a bent paperclip into in order to pop the drive open when it didn't have power? Remember when something was juuuuust out of reach but you bent a paperclip to latch onto it and pull it out from under the refrigerator? Remember when you were MacGyver and you had to diffuse a bomb and all you had was bubblegum, a toothpick, and... a paperclip? Yeah you do.

Paperclips are awesome.
posted by DyRE at 10:42 PM on July 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


These paperclips are better than the original in at least some respects. Affability, perhaps.
posted by 23 at 10:55 PM on July 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


Another invention that's lasted a remarkably long time is the humble pallet jack. Back in the 90s, I worked at a roofing company, and found one that was still in constant use, and was something like 60 years old. I played with it for awhile, never having seen one before, and came away stunned at the sheer cleverness and perfection of the device. If you're on a flat surface, and you need to move a heavy load from one place to another using just muscle power, the pallet jack is the thing you need, and it's been the thing you need for almost a hundred years. That will probably still be true in another hundred years. Maybe another thousand.

Looking at the brilliance of the design, precisely as complex as it needed to be and not one iota more, I realized then that the only real difference between modern humans and cavemen is what we know, and I've always wondered what a mind that brilliant could have come up with, given another two generations of advancement in technology and materials science.
posted by Malor at 10:59 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Alnedra, whatever you do, don't click this link. Just don't.
posted by taz at 11:01 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Those binder clips are totally useless for getting at that pesky earwax.
posted by mule98J at 11:07 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh man, the pallet jack! We need a whole day dedicated to that tool.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:09 PM on July 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Paperclips are incredible. There really isn't anything better when it comes to attaching 2-20 sheets of paper in a specific but separable order and then placing them in an envelope. The staple-less stapler is a pretty decent replacement, but it lacks the ability to say "okay, I'll just pull out page 7 and pass this along."
posted by 256 at 11:14 PM on July 27, 2012


And, interestingly, in my job as a fiction editor and despite the fact that 99% of our submissions come digitally, I still occasionally see clips of the sort that are described in the article as Niagara Clips. I have no idea who it is that still makes these, but they seem to be disproportionately popular among that sector of the population that insists on sending hardcopy manuscripts to an online magazine.
posted by 256 at 11:20 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sadly, there probably isn't enough time left for paper to drive any innovation in this field. The last time I used a paper clip was to remove my sim tray on the iPhone.
posted by Mai2k3 at 11:33 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The awe and majesty of the paperclip was overshadowed only briefly by man walking on the moon.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:42 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"It hasn’t been improved upon since."

Corrugated paper clips are objectively an improvement over the original.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 11:50 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


les trombones
posted by rongorongo at 12:01 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


A similar post could be made about the humble safety pin.
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:04 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure about that, ten pounds of inedita. They grab better, but regular paper clips grab well enough, and it's kind of a pain removing the corrugated ones.
posted by Malor at 12:04 AM on July 28, 2012


Paperclips are great to have around just to stick things with and otherwise devise makeshift tools. Also, they're good for making spectacular pops and arcs when you use them to short out the electrical sockets in your tenth grade accounting class, so I've heard.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:21 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know it's only a small variation, but I can't remember the last time I saw a classic gem paperclip instead of a pointed, almost triangular one (like this, nearly)...
posted by Dysk at 12:38 AM on July 28, 2012


an elegant loop within a loop of springy steel wire.
posted by the man of twists and turns

Eponhysterical!
posted by chavenet at 12:46 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


These paperclips are better than the original in at least some respects. Affability, perhaps.

Leave it to the Japanese to kawaii even the pedestrian paperclip.
posted by Skeptic at 1:14 AM on July 28, 2012


Rubber coating on the clips these days prevents documents from getting rust stains over years in a filing cabinet.

That's an improvement over even anodized metal clips. Plus different colors help with filing by type, and besides they're pretty.

I still prefer folders, however, but then I work with document archives. You should see what a 50 year old paper clip does to a document when removed at last. Plus the uneven bulge created by a clip is an inefficient use of file cabinet space.

So in short, your favorite fastener sucks.
posted by spitbull at 3:15 AM on July 28, 2012


I can live without it. I guess we use one to replace a broken zipper tab on a diaper bag. But it isn't invaluable.

I guess business and government still make a gigantic stupid pile of paper. I can't remember the last time I /collated/ some paper, bundled it with a staple or paper clip, and /filed/ it.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:08 AM on July 28, 2012


"It hasn’t been improved upon since."

"Corrugated paper clips are objectively an improvement over the original."


Perhaps they grip the paper slightly better, however their secondary function as wire sculpture is severely compromised because they break so easily when bent. I'll take the classic clips any day.
posted by fairmettle at 5:09 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Due to hincandenza's link to Clippy above, I must share a story. On a transnational redeye one night, everyone in the cabin was asleep except me and a guy a few rows ahead, illuminated by his overhead light. I could hear him typing away on his laptop, obviously working very hard and perhaps under deadline. All of a sudden he roars, "Goddamn fucking paperclip!!" I burst out lapping, knowing that Clippy had interfered, yet again. The look on his face as he peaked around was priceless.
posted by carmicha at 7:04 AM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, and Hincandenza, it looks like you're writing a letter!
posted by carmicha at 7:07 AM on July 28, 2012


There have been small improvements made for specific uses. Plastic clips are a must for archivists who don't want the clips damaging documents that they'll be in contact with for a very long time.
posted by sudasana at 7:32 AM on July 28, 2012


When it comes to paperclips, I'm a strict segregationist: I always have 2 bins on my desk, little paperclips and big paperclips. The vinyl coated ones go straight in the trash because they don't hold as well. Natural selection at work on my desk! I do prefer the serrated ones because they don't accidentally slip off as easily. Binder clips have their place, but they are imperfectly interchangeable with paperclips. When I see a paperclip that has been bent open by overstress, I think "Well, that was a job for a binder clip, wasn't it?" There's a gray area when you could go either way between using a paperclip or using a binder clip. All of the clips on the market have their niche or they would be eliminated.
posted by Daddy-O at 7:59 AM on July 28, 2012


I'm just in awe of the mind that predicted recessed reset buttons in consumer network appliances way back in 1899.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:55 AM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


The corrugated paperclip (which has burrs notched in the wire) is used in classes about patent law, as an example of a classic improvement. I recall that a vast fortune was built on the patent rights for those little nicks in the wire.

That, and the flow-through tea bag.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:05 AM on July 28, 2012


I can't remember the last time I used a paper clip for actually clipping paper. The only time I need one these days is to push the reset button on a wedged server in the test lab at work.
posted by octothorpe at 9:32 AM on July 28, 2012


There's something called a Method Patent, where you patent how to do do or build something (as opposed to patenting the object being made).

The modern paperclip we know today, all started with a method patent by William Middlebrook.
posted by eye of newt at 9:35 AM on July 28, 2012


gees, I should read the post before commenting--I got hooked in by 23's animal paperclips and then posted without going back and reading...well...excuses, excuses.
posted by eye of newt at 9:40 AM on July 28, 2012


It hasn’t been improved upon since.

Sure it has.
posted by radwolf76 at 10:48 AM on July 28, 2012


Binder clips have their place, but they are imperfectly interchangeable with paperclips.

Yeah, but you can't make this with mere paperclips, now can you?!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 5:06 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Yeah, but you can't make this with mere paperclips, now can you?!

To be fair, the staple puller is really what makes that one shine.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:05 PM on July 28, 2012


It hasn’t been improved upon since.

Sure it has.
posted by MikeKD at 2:41 AM on July 31, 2012


There's something called a Method Patent, where you patent how to do do or build something (as opposed to patenting the object being made).

Actually, it is not a "special" kind of patent. Indeed, a well-drafted patent will often include both device and method claims (and the method claims may also relate to a particular way to use something). But that patents are not just for "gizmos", but may also relate to methods or processes is indeed something which those unfamiliar with the patent system often ignore and have trouble wrapping their heads around.
posted by Skeptic at 4:21 AM on July 31, 2012


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