Who Invented the Paper Clip

Paper clips are such a simple invention most people would be forgiven for thinking they must have been invented thousands of years ago, perhaps by ancient ancestors who first learned to work with tin or iron. Steel is notoriously difficult to work with, and especially so when small items like wire for a paper clip are being produced.

In fact paper clips couldn’t have been invented earlier than 1830, the year an American doctor named John Ireland Howe successfully created a machine that would automate producing pins with a solid head. Previously pins had been made by hand forcing the price of pins out of the reach of most seamstresses in a time when almost all clothing was handmade by the wearer or someone they knew.

john ireland howe Who Invented the Paper Clip

Paper clips and pins are obviously quite different, although they have a similar purpose, to keep the item being pinned or clipped organized. After pins were successfully marketed at only a few cents per packet instead of the more expensive dollar that handmade pins had cost, the demand for pins to hold together sheafs of papers became insatiable.

The first turned paper clip wasn’t produced until many years later in 1867 when the Fay paper clip (also known as the Cinch paper clip) was first produced. This was a short length of wire with both ends turned back 120 degrees but leaving a small length of wire between each bend that formed the spine of the clip. A patent was registered to Samuel Fay in 1867, though his paper clip cannot be said to have been widely available until the turn of the century.

red paper clip Who Invented the Paper Clip

By contrast, another design known as the Wright paper clip, invented by Erlman Wright was only patented in 1877 but also marketed and advertised in the same year. The Wright paper clip was specifically advertised as being a replacement for stitching pages together and could hold newspapers together.

In England in the early 1880s a paper clip known as the Gem paper clip was being produced, and this is the version most common today with two rounded ends, but first imported into the US in 1892. The Gem paper clip was never patented in England and in 1904 the Cushman & Denison company obtained a trademark over the name.

Popular folklore claims that a Norwegian man named Johan Vaaler invented the paper clip in 1899 and successfully registered a patent in Germany in 1899, and in the US in 1901. It is true that Vaaler designed his own paper clip in that year and registered the patents, unfortunately his designs never worked since there was no torque being applied to holding the papers resulting in the clip coming loose.

Since many people aren’t aware of Fay and Wright, or even of the English origin of the Gem paper clip Vaaler has been erroneously declared the inventor of the paperclip. The true honor of inventing the paperclip belongs to an American, Samuel Fay.

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Peter is the founder of WhoGuides - The History Website. He's always happy to share his passion for history. Use the contact form if you want to get in touch with him.

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