The gem of the paperclip

The Gem Paperclip that is still used today.

Imagine the year 1800. The industrial revolution is at its peak as we know it and manufacturing is taking a big leap in Europe. With the development in the wood pulping came industrial paper mills which made paper production inexpensive and widely available. This made the paper available for offices to keep records and documentation. Add all of this up and you get massive amounts of loose sheets of paper creating a mess in the office.

Iron Pins were used in the 19th century for making bundles of papers. These pins are similar to nails to hammer in today’s time.

Now a simple solution is already in place to sort the paperwork which is called a paperclip. A Gem Paper Clip to be precise. This paper clip is a simple bent steel wire covered with plastic which looks like a loop. A simple yet indigenous design which uses torsion and elasticity in the wire, and friction between wire and paper to make big sorted bundles of paper to be kept and shelved without the worry of losing vital information.

But, in the 19th century, to solve and manage the mess of paperwork, a quintessential middle-class profession called “the clerk” was born. They had the job of creating, sorting, and processing the paperwork. The solution to this task came from the revolution that created it in the first place. One of the first solutions that were adopted was a simple iron pin. The mechanization of the manufacturing processes had taken a good pace in the first half of the 19th century. This laid the groundwork for the manufacturing of the paper pins. The advancement in drawing, straightening, forming, and cutting of iron with each task done by a dedicated team of labourers, pin production became over 1,000 times more efficient where a single man could barely create 30 pins in a single day. This early use of the assembly line would easily yield production rates of over 30,000 pins. By 1890 a box of 3,000 pins could be bought for as little as 40 cents. While iron pins were inexpensive, they had other problems. Iron being iron rusted and left marks on the paper. In addition to this, the pins worked on the basis of punching a hole through the paper which many clerks and their bosses didn’t like.

Various types of paperclips.

With further advancement in material science and metallurgy, Steel was invented and this changed everything. Steel had the perfect balance of strength and elasticity. Many innovators started to draw steel into various shapes and used it for their own custom purposes. This led to an abundance of patents filed on different shapes of the drawn thin steel wires. Among these innovations were the earliest paperclips.


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. Out of these, one paperclip design stood out the most. The one that we know and love the most, the Gem Paper clip. This clip is possessing an elegant and efficient design that holds papers between two tongue loops with the torsional force of the bent springy steel wire that formed its shape. Oddly enough, since the 1870s, the production of this design was done in England by several manufacturers but none of them had filed a patent on its form. Among them, the Gem Manufacturing company is considered to be the namesake behind the design of the form which first appeared in 1883.

Middlebrook 1899 patent for a paper clip machine showing that the Gem was already in common use (top and bottom)

It would not be until 1893 for the first definitive illustration of a modern gem paperclip to appear in a publication presented in an advertisement by the American company Cushman and Denison as a gem paperclip the company would go on to register the trademark to the gem name. 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. Although the design and form of the paperclip are not covered in the scope of the invention. This suggests that the style and the form was already general knowledge by that time.

There have been other insubstantial claims like the one given by Herbert Spencer who is also known to coin the term “survival of the fittest,” claimed in his autobiography to have invented a "binding-pin" that was distributed by Ackermann & Company. Although, this pin looked more like a modern cotter pin than a modern paper clip. Another claim from a Norwegian inventor and patent clerk named Johan Vaaler, to bind paper sheets together is widely accepted. He was granted patents in Germany and in the United States for a paper clip of similar design, but less functional and practical because it lacked the last turn of the wire. His version was never manufactured because of the superiority of the Gem paper clip which was not yet famous in Norway.


Postage stamp issued in 1999 to commemorate Vaaler's paper clip. In the background his German ″Patenschrift". 1901. The depicted paper clip is not the one he invented, but the successful Gem clip.

The Gem style clip then went on to become a national myth posthumously based on the false assumption that the paperclip was invented by Vaaler. The gem style paperclip remained mostly unchanged over the next 120 years. It even became a symbol throughout the century in France during world war II, where it was worn by patriots to represent resistance to German occupiers. 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. After World War II it became a symbol of Norway's inventiveness based on valorous claims the paperclip would even be commemorated on the nation's stamp in 1999.

The paper clip further went on to become a symbol and an icon representing simplicity in design and documentation. It is used as a standard icon for an attachment in an email. An assistant in Microsoft Office named “Clippy” was given the shape of the paper clip. It is widely said that only one in ten paperclips is actually used for binding bits of paper together. Many of them are lost and the majority are used for different purposes, like SIM card ejectors, resetting various electronic devices and also are used for lock picking.

There are several innovations that inventors are trying to bring to the design of paper clips, but still, the simple steel wire gem style clip remains the most basic of basic office supplies, and even today, its ease of use and efficiency in gripping and storing paper without entanglement or damaging it has made it one of the few inventions in human history that have proved difficult to improve upon.

Further information

Further information can be found on this awesome video by History UK about the humble paper clip down below.

Also this video by The new mind on the strange origins of paperclip.


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