I have often thought of how infinitesimally small would have been the chance of any man or group of men, except the one who actually had the idea, planning to invent the common zipper.
Frank B. Jewett chairman of Bell Telephone Laboratories 1943
One of those ever-present things that we take for granted in daily life, but hardly take notice of — like clouds or stop lights
...Ok, well hopefully not stop lights.
When it comes to zippers it’d be a challenge to get through the day without encountering one.
They’re used nearly everywhere, from exploring the depths of the ocean to the far regions outer space; have thousands of design iterations that can make them invisible, waterproof, magnetic or airtight; and come in a variety of materials from metals to synthetic polymers.
What most people don’t know about this impactful fashion and (sometimes literally) life saving device, is that zippers were invented by the same mind that is accredited for coming up with the sewing machine — Elias Howe.
Patented in 1851 as an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Enclosure”, Howe described his idea as “a series of clasps united by a connecting cord running or sliding upon ribs.”
The blueprints only required four fastening elements per an inch and was closer to a complex drawstring than a true slide fastener.
Howe, however, must’ve been kept busy attending to his invention of the sewing machine, because for reasons unknown, he never pushed his patent to market.
It took another 40 years for the idea of a zipper to germinate, until failed auto inventor Whitcomb L. Judson applied for a patent on his “Clasp-Lockers” which he debuted at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
1900s to WWII
Like Judson’s autos, his “Clasp-Lockers” were met with limited success and remained an obscure fashion item for boots and shoes until Gideon Sundback picked up where Judson left off.
Taking lead of Judson’s struggling Universal Fastener Company after his death in 1909, Sundback devoted himself to improving the fastener for four years until he had designed what is recognized as the modern zipper: A Y shaped channel with two facing rows of closely spaced teeth spaced that could be pulled apart or into a single piece by the slider.
It would take even longer for the pervasive word “zipper” to be coined, which finally happened in 1923 when the famous American industrialist B.F. Goodrich (Yes, the same Goodrich known for his tires) came up with the onomatopoeic word as a marketing campaign to highlight the futuristic fastening features of his rubber galoshes.
The marketing worked. After enjoying a decade of popularity on boots and tobacco pouches, zippers debuted on children’s clothing, as a way to help them become more independent, and eventually found their way onto military spec bags during WWII and thousands of other useful appliances.
Today the zipper market is a global behemoth and the seemingly simple invention of an “Automatic Continues Clothing Enclosure” that Howe was too busy to work on continues to evolve in new and exciting ways. There are plastic zippers, which are impossible to corrode and are common in marine soft goods, magnetic zippers that are used in sportswear and allow for one-handed opening and closing, and airtight zippers developed by NASA’s aerospace engineers to retain air pressure.
So the next time you’re zipping up a wetsuit or unzipping a bag take a moment to appreciate the intricate row of teeth easily clasped together with an elegant pull tab, and recognize 167 years worth of industrious innovation and design.