BECAUSE WE LIVE IN AN AGE of such remarkable technological ingenuity, it’s easy to forget that other periods were equally fertile, or more so. Consider, for instance, the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century, which saw the arrival of a huge array of life-changing objects, among them the typewriter, telephone, internal combustion engine, Edison’s lightbulb, the tractor, escalator, torpedo, phonograph, transformer, and paper clip.
Yes, the lowly paper clip. It lacks the sophistication of other inventions of that period, not to mention our own, but it’s one of the most adaptable, inexpensive, and enduring. The need to secure two or more pieces of paper together has existed as long as paper itself, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century, with the widespread commercial production of paper, that paper-fastening became a challenge of enormous proportions. Paper was now in the hands of the many, and in vast quantities. The straight pins and ribbons that had been deployed in the past to keep order didn’t do the job.
A number of creative thinkers devised some kind of paper clip, but the one that took hold, and that remains the paradigm, is a piece of wire wound into a tight but pliable double loop. Known as the Gem, it may have been first produced, though never patented, in Britain in the late nineteenth century. It was an American, William D. Middlebrook, who invented a machine that made paper clips, and patented the clip itself in 1899. The standard-issue paper clip has changed very little since, though there are, of course, enhancements: some are plastic, some brightly colored, some in unusual shapes (including my favorite, the silhouette of a dachshund).
One of the paper clip’s most endearing qualities is that something so simple—what the Museum of Modern Art codified as a “humble masterpiece” in a 2004 exhibition —can be used to repair something as complex as a computer. Techies worldwide have unwound a paper clip and used it for computer fixes. On the low-tech end, a paper clip can also serve as a lock pick— preferably on your own door (this magazine does not promote B&E).
For those who are at least part-time procrastinators, paper clips are a dream: you can turn them into a jump rope or a curtain or anything else your mind imagines. A Californian named Dan Meyer holds the Guinness World Record for the longest string of paper clips made by an individual in twenty-four hours: in 2004 he used 54,030 to create a chain that’s more than a mile long. He may have had something better or more important to do that day, but I’m impressed.