Why we need to remove Johan Vaaler from the history books

by Rick Roberts
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If you Google “Who invented the paper clip?” the top result will tell you that a man named Johan Vaaler invented it in 1899. Google even does that thing when it is really sure about something where it puts the result on top without even suggesting a link below. That thing Google does is usually really great. The only downside on this occasion is that Google is wrong. Johan Vaaler did not invent the paper clip.

This myth is widely believed today because Johan Vaaler did have a patent on a clip that is very similar to the modern paper clip. However, there are two important distinctions to make. The first is that Vaaler’s invention did not have the crucial second loop and what he created was not an effective clip. Vaaler’s invention had only one loop as was never put into production, it was too impractical. The second important distinction is that when he patented this design the format we are used to today was already in existence. We can’t even give Vaaler credit for creating a design that was later improved on, he created a worse design when the one we all use today already existed.

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Vaaler was credited with the design because of some confusion over patents. A patent agency worker was visiting Germany and registering Norwegian patents and wrongly credited Vaaler with the invention of the modern paper clip. During World War two the paper clip became an important symbol of unity. It was cheap, easy to find, and it wasn’t banned by German rulers. Anyone who wanted to show their stand for unity could wear a paper clip. German leaders later discovered what the clip did represent and banned it. This story was told many times and as it was entered into historic books Vaaler was often credited as the clip creator.

The design we are so used to today, often referred to as the Gem paper clip, was first found in 1892, seven years before Vaaler patented his inferior concept. This is not to suggest the Gem paper clip is the perfect design. The clip can catch and scrape both people and paper. It usually comes out of the box attached to many other paper clips because it is pretty good at catching everything. Not only this but it is not great at holding paper. If stretched too wide it becomes useless. The Gem stationary company receives countless letters even now with improved designs for the clip. Yet the company says that the clip is now an institution and a better design would not sell as well. In many ways, the clip is like the QWERTY keyboard. An inefficient design that served a purpose at the time and that we have now gone too far to adequately replace.

So if Vaaler did not create the paper clip, who should we give the credit to? The truth is we don’t exactly know. The modern paper clip design was never patented. A man name Samuel Fay patented the original clip for holding paper design in 1867 so he could be given credit for that but in the following year’s many different designs came to fruition. 

While we don’t know the name of the inventor of the modern Gem paper clip we can be sure of one thing, it wasn’t Johan Vaaler. The truth is that there were many designs of the paper clip at the time and Vaaler’s was one of the worst. To give this man credit for the paper clip is the equivalent of giving the inventor of the worst MP3 player you have ever seen the credit for inventing the iPod. It is one thing to forget the inventor but to give the worst imitator the credit, there is no forgiveness for this.

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