Did you ever wonder how the zipper was invented? What better day to explore its origin than April 29, Zipper Day, a day dedicated to a device we all use but never give much thought to (unless it’s stuck, of course, and we have the fix for that here!).
In 1851, a man named Elias Howe, an American inventor who invented the sewing machine, obtained a patent for what he called an “Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure” (try saying that three times fast!). But it was not a success. It didn’t really look or operate anything like the zipper we know today; it operated as individual clasps that the user had to join together manually, and pull shut by using a string. Howe did not continue developing his model, and several years went by before another patent was created.
Then more than 40 years later, a man named Whitcomb Judson came out with a “clasp locker for shoes” which served solely as a shoe fastener, but it was very similar to Howe’s original patent. The design was essentially a guide used to close the space between a shoe’s clasps on one side to the attachments on the other. But it was difficult to use and even more difficult mass produce.
In 1893, Judson opened the Universal Fastener Company in New Jersey and was issued a second patent for a device that used metal hooks and eyes that had to be manually laced into the boot or shoe, but it was an improvement because the device functioned as a single unit instead of as individual clasps. But when he debuted it at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, it was met with lukewarm enthusiasm from the public. And it eventually flopped because it would spring open on occasion.
Then in 1906, Giden Sundback, a Swedish-American electrical engineer who was hired to work at Universal Fastener Company, developed a model he called the “Plako fastener” but it too had trouble staying closed when bent.
Finally, in 1913, Sundback revised the design. He developed a model that used interlocking oval scoops (instead of hooks) that could be joined together tightly by a slider in one single movement. This final design is recognized as what we know as the modern zipper. The patent for the “Separable Fastener” was issued in 1917.
In the early stages of production, zippers were used for boots and tobacco pouches. During World War I, the device was used by military and Navy designers for flying suits and money belts, which helped prove to the public that the device was truly durable.
By 1923, the B.F. Goodrich Company, who used the product for boots and galoshes, gave the device its name of “zipper” and the rest, as we say, is history.