Who Invented the Zip?
Whitcomb L. Judson, an American mechanical engineer, from Chicago invented, constructed, and patented the first workable zipper or zip-fastener in 1891. His invention was originally designed for footwear. It consisted of a series of separate fasteners, each having two interlocking parts which could be fastened either by hand or a movable guide. The idea was revolutionary but commercially unsuccessful because the fastener had an annoying tendency to spring open. The method, still in use today, is based on interlocking teeth. Initially, it was called the “hookless fastener” and was later redesigned to become more reliable.
In 1913, Gideon Sundback, a Swedish electrical engineer who had settled in the United States, developed a more practical fastener and an efficient machine for making it. Two important events in the history of the zip’s rise to the worldwide popularity occurred in 1918 when a contractor ordered 10,000 fasteners for naval flying suits, and in 1923 when the B.F. Goodrich Company put fasteners on the rubber overshoes that they manufactured.
A zipper, zip, fly, or zip fastener, formerly known as a clasp locker, is a commonly used device for binding the edges of an opening of fabric or other flexible material, like on a garment or a bag. It is used in clothing (e.g., jackets and jeans), luggage and other bags, sporting goods, camping gear (e.g. tents and sleeping bags), and other items.
In 1851, Elias Howe received a patent for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure”. He did not try seriously to market it, missing recognition he might otherwise have received. Howe’s device was more like an elaborate drawstring than a true slide fastener.
Forty-two years later, in 1893 Whitcomb Judson, who invented a pneumatic street railway, marketed a “Clasp Locker”. The device served as a (more complicated) hook-and-eye shoe fastener. With the support of businessman Colonel Lewis Walker, Judson launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture the new device. The clasp locker had its public debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and met with little commercial success. Judson is sometimes given credit as the inventor of the zipper, but he never made a practical device.
The company, reorganized as the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company, moved to Hoboken, N.J. in 1901. Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American electrical engineer, was hired to work for the company in 1906. Good technical skills and a marriage to the plant-manager’s daughter Elvira Aronson led Sundbäck to the position of head designer.
The company moved to Meadville, PA, where it operated for most of the 20th century under the name Talon, Inc. After his wife’s death in 1911, Sundback devoted himself to improving the fastener, and by December 1913 he had designed the modern zipper. The rights to this invention were owned by the Meadville company (operating as the Hookless Fastener Co.), but Sundback retained non-U.S. rights and used these to set up in subsequent years the Canadian firm Lightning Fastner Co. in St. Catharines, Ont. Sundback’s work with this firm has led to the common misperception that he was Canadian and that the zipper originated in that country.
Gideon Sundback increased the number of fastening elements from four per inch (about one every 6.4 mm) to ten or eleven (around every 2.5 mm), introduced two facing rows of teeth that pulled into a single piece by the slider, and increased the opening for the teeth guided by the slider. The patent for the “Separable Fastener” was issued in 1917. Gideon Sundback also created the manufacturing machine for the new device.
The “S-L” or “scrapless” machine took a special Y-shaped wire and cut scoops from it, then punched the scoop dimple and nib, and clamped each scoop on a cloth tape to produce a continuous zipper chain. Within the first year of operation, Sundback’s machinery was producing a few hundred feet (around 100 meters) of fastener per day.
In March of the same year, Mathieu Burri, a Swiss inventor, improved the design by adding a lock-in system attached to the last teeth, but his version never got into production due to conflicting patents. The popular North American term zipper, (UK zip, or occasionally zip-fastener), came from the B. F. Goodrich Company in 1923. The company opted to use Gideon Sundback’s fastener on a new type of rubber boots (or galoshes) and referred to it as the zipper, and the name stuck. The two chief uses of the zipper in its early years were for closing boots and tobacco pouches. Zippers began being used for clothing in 1925 by Schott NYC on leather jackets.
In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children’s clothing featuring zippers. The campaign praised zippers for promoting self-reliance in young children by making it possible for them to dress in self-help clothing. The zipper beat the button in 1937 in the “Battle of the Fly”, after French fashion designers raved over zippers in men’s trousers. Esquire declared the zipper the “Newest Tailoring Idea for Men” and among the zippered fly’s many virtues was that it would exclude “The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray.”
The most recent innovation in the zipper’s design was the introduction of models that could open on both ends, as on jackets. Today the zipper is by far the most widespread fastener, and is found on clothing, luggage, leather goods, and various other objects.