Nobody's quite sure who came up with the first paper clip, but it's a good thing somebody did. Imagine having to tie papers together with a ribbon threaded through a series of holes, or being forced to fasten documents with rust-prone steel pins. These became indignities of the past with the introduction of the modern, bent-wire paper clip around the turn of the century. A Norwegian named Johan Vaaler may be the man responsible: he ginned up a few clip designs--including one that looks similar to the now standard Gem design--in 1899 and patented them in America in 1901. But by that time, a few other paper-clip patents were on the books. In 1900 Cornelius Brosnan of Springfield, Mass., patented a similar device called the Konaclip. A year earlier a patent had been issued to William Middlebrook of Waterbury, Conn., for a machine to manufacture paper clips, and its output, too, resembled the Gem. "When all is said and done, any attempt to sort out the origins and the patent history of the paper clip may be an exercise in futility," writes Henry Petroski, author of "The Evolution of Useful Things." Failure may be an orphan, but the paper clip was such a good idea that many people thought of it at once.
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