Gideon Sundback is credited with inventing the first zipper, but he was not the first to patent the device. Sundback, however, created the first zipper to work well, and he also invented the machine that could make these fasteners more quickly.
Zippers Started as “Separable Fasteners”
Zippers are something we take for granted. We zip them up and down many times daily without ever giving a thought to who invented them or how complex they are.
But take a look at a zipper on something you’re wearing. You’ll see the little teeth are lined up on two separate pieces of cloth tape. The slider device that unites the teeth must move smoothly and be operated by a small but easy-to-use pull-tab. Once closed, the teeth need to provide a firm hold. Zippers also need a “stop” piece at both the top and the bottom of the zipper to keep a slider from running off its track.
The challenge of the earliest zippers was making ones that were reliable and would lie flat. If the zipper buckled, twisted, or gapped open, it was no good to anyone.
Elias Howe Tried
The first known effort at making this type of closure system was made by Elias Howe in 1851. His invention was a series of clasps united by a connecting cord that slid up and down on ribs. It was called an “automatic continuous clothing closure,” but it was never marketed.
Forty years later, Whitcomb Judson, a mechanical engineer, was tired of fastening the high-button boots that were in fashion at the time. He developed a hook-and-eye fastener that featured a hand-pulled guide to clasp hooks and eyes sequentially, thereby closing the boot or the article of clothing.
On Display 1893 Exposition
Judson spent two years drawing and re-drawing the closure he envisioned. At last he got a patent on what he called the “clasp locker.” The device was inventive enough that it was accepted for display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Because of this exposure, Judson received investment money from Lewis Walker, and the two men started the Automatic Hook & Eye Company (later known as the Universal Fastener Company).
The product attracted interest, but it was problematic. Sometimes the interlocking part of it didn’t mesh, and other times, the fastenings popped open. But Judson saw the need was real and kept at it.
Throughout the 19th century, all clothing, suitcases, pouches and shoes had to be fastened closed using buttons, snaps, buckles, or some sort of system of pins. These closures were not speedy or convenient. And with some items of clothing, the assistance of another person was required.
The Universal Fastener Company enjoyed some early sales, but business was slow. Judson knew the product still needed work. Gideon Sundback was hired to address the problem.
Gideon Sundback (1880-1954) was born in Sweden in 1880 and finished his electrical engineering studies in Germany before emigrating to the United States in 1905. His first job was at Westinghouse Electric Company. About a year later, he received an offer from Whitcomb Judson.
IN 1906, Gideon Sundback was made head of design at Universal Fastener. His first development is known as the Plako fastener. The Plako fastener operated with the closure guide carefully moving up the tracking loop through the hooks and eyes that were attached to cotton twill tape on either side.
It was considered a “bridge” technology as it was a stepping stone to what was eventually going to be the zipper. (The Plako patent–#788317–was filed under Whitcomb Judson’s name, but companies frequently kept patents in their founders’ names.)
Sundback continued to work on the design, and in 1913, he received a patent for what he called “the Hookless No. 2.” In 1917, he patented changes he made to the 1913 design. With the 1917 patent, Sundback improved many of the flaws that had bothered them all. He found a way to manufacture “cup-shaped teeth” that interlocked; each pair nesting within the pair below as the fastener was pulled between the two sides.
Sundback also invented a machine that could make the separate strips with teeth. The first factory was built in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, just west of Niagara Falls. Sundback spent time traveling between the company’s main office in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and the plant in Canada to supervise the work.
The U.S. military saw the promise of this new type of closure device—faster and easier than any type of button or snap. In 1918, the Navy ordered 10,000 hookless fasteners for their flight suits. Other parts of the military experimented with them on life vests and money belts.
But just as Whitcomb Judson knew when he began tinkering with creating the fastener, they could be a huge help if used on shoes and boots. In the early 1920s, a designer at B.F. Goodrich saw the possibilities. He realized that if rubber boots could be closed in this way, it would reduce the amount of water that seeped in—a problem they had with other types of closures.
Goodrich had them added to a new style of boot they were making, They head designer called the new boots, “zippers.” Though the term was intended to refer to the style of boot, the name soon became permanently attached to the fastening device.
Soon after this success, the zipper was added to clothing of various types. Elsa Schiaparelli was said to be the first designer to use zippers in her clothing. Over time, more garment makers did so. In the 1930s, Esquire magazine featured the “newest tailoring idea for men,” raving about the zippered fly.
By 1934, 60 million zippers sold during a year. They were being used on men’s and women’s clothing, sleeping bags, handbags, and eventually knapsacks and suitcases.
War shortages eventually led to making zippers out of plastic, and the industry adapted. But the zipper business still suffered because raw goods were still in short supply because of the war. In 1946, a businessman in El Paso, Texas, wrote a letter to the government (reprinted in the El Paso newspaper) noting that his zipper business still suffered because the government was not yet opening the market for leather goods. Because there were no hides, no one made bags, and if no one made bags, there was no need for zippers.
Zippers today are largely an imported item (mainly from Japan), and their sales are still affected by fashion. Think of the pants and jackets that have zipper adornment or the styles of dresses that feature an oversized silver zipper down the back. These trends come and go. Yet the practical needs for zippers all remain. Even later inventions like Velcro are no substitute.
In 2006, the National inventors Hall of Fame inducted Gideon Sundback into their ranks. And in 2012, Sundback and the zipper were further honored by becoming a Google doodle.
For another great story of an inventor read Marion Donovan, Inventor of the Diaper Cover.