Paperclip

one red paperclip

A paperclip is an instrument used to hold sheets of paper together, usually made of steel wire bent to a looped shape. Most paper clips are variations of the Gem type introduced in the 1890s or earlier, characterized by the almost two full loops made by the wire. Common to paper clips proper is their utilization of torsion and elasticity in the wire, and friction between wire and paper.

When a moderate number of sheets are inserted between the two ‘tongues’ of the clip, the tongues will be forced apart and cause torsion in the bend of the wire to grip the sheets together. Too many sheets will cause the elastic limit of the material to be exceeded, resulting in permanent deformation. Paper clips usually have an oblong shape with straight sides, but may also be triangular or circular, or have more elaborate shapes. The most common material is steel, but molded plastic is also used. Some other kinds of paper clip use a two-piece clamping system. Recent innovations include multi-colored plastic-coated paper clips and spring-fastened binder clips.

The most common type of wire paper clip still in use, the Gem paper clip, was never patented, but it was most likely in production in Britain already in the early 1870s by ‘The Gem Manufacturing Company.’ 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—ease of use, gripping without tearing, and storing without tangling—have been difficult to improve upon.

A Norwegian, Johan Vaaler, 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 unrecognized 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.

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, such as flag pins or pins showing the cipher of the exiled King Haakon VII of Norway were forbidden. Those wearing them did not yet see them as national symbols, as the myth of their Norwegian origin was not commonly known at the time. 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 risked severe punishment. 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 widespread 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 Vaaler 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, stating he was the inventor of the paper clip.

Johan Vaaler’s fame as the paper clip inventor has spread worldwide, especially in the United States. 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 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.’ Both of these statements are false. 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 national concord and solidarity, and opposition to the German occupation and local Nazi authorities. But the project was a success — far more than the required 6 million clips were collected.

Wire is versatile in its nature. 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). Both 1st generation iPhones and the iPhone 3G require 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. Some types of handcuffs can be unfastened using paper clips. There are two approaches. The 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.

A paper clip image is the standard image for an attachment in an email client.

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