ALTOM: Praise the unsung device ... the ubiquitous paper clip

Tim Altom
September 11, 2010
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Tim Altom

To me, the most versatile piece of equipment in an office isn’t the computer. It’s the paper clip.

Sure, it holds papers together, but it’s also the perfect size to poke into a “release” hole in a disk drive and to dig out crud from between computer keys. It’s strong enough when unbent to become a hook for hanging cables, headsets and other desk detritus. It can be similarly unbent and then be tied around unused, coiled cabling that’s going into storage.

It can be used to annoy users of software products, as the famous “Clippit” (or “Clippy”) animated paper clip did in Microsoft products in the late ’90s. In extreme situations, it can become the weapon of choice between feuding cubicle-mates, when fired from between the fingers and propelled by a string of interlocked rubber bands.

Now it turns out I’ve drastically underestimated its many uses: It has also been used as a political statement, and ultimately to barter for a house.

The humble paper clip as we know it (despite hundreds of patents for the paper clip as we don’t know it) was first produced by Cushman & Denison in about 1894, and has become known as the “Gem clip.” We don’t know who really invented it, either, despite a flurry of patents for various designs, as well as urban legends ascribing that honor to Johan Vaaler of Norway. Don’t tell Norwegians the story is bunk, though; they’re proud of their supposed genius, and there’s even a giant paper clip sculpture in Norway commemorating the event.

The paper clip has become such an indissoluble part of Norwegian lore that they’ve issued a stamp about it. During World War II, Norwegians fastened paper clips to their clothing as a sign of solidarity and resistance to the occupying Nazis. It had to be the only time in history when the paper clip was banned for being politically dangerous.

The irony for Norwegians is that those heroic little paper clips didn’t look anything like the one Vaaler patented. They were Gem-style clips, as is the huge sculpture. Vaaler’s invention was just a simple overlapping loop of wire, and it was never manufactured because the Gem clip was imported into Norway soon afterward. Despite continual debunking, the Norwegians still maintain that Vaaler was the originator of the paper clip.

Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald’s use for his little red paper clip (also a Gem-style clip, of course) was more prosaic, but startlingly practical. In 2005, he resolved to see how far he could take rounds of barter, starting with a little red paper clip. In July that year, MacDonald (oneredpaperclip.blogspot.com) began trading up from that little paper clip, and in a series of swaps, finally ended up owning a house. The paper clip was traded for a fish-shaped pen. The pen was in turn traded for a doorknob, which in turn was traded for a Coleman camp stove. The stove was exchanged for a generator, and the generator for an empty beer keg and the beer to fill it. The “instant party” was turned into a snowmobile, which turned into a two-person trip to British Columbia, which turned into a cube van.

Along the way, his quest went viral and he enlisted the aid of celebrities, who now contributed items with more star appeal. He traded the van for a recording contract, and he traded that for one year’s rent in Arizona. The rent was swapped for an afternoon with Alice Cooper, and that became a Kiss motorized snow globe. (I’m having some trouble visualizing what a motorized Kiss snow globe might look like.)

He traded the globe for a role in the movie “Donna on Demand,” and that movie role turned into a house in Saskatchewan. The town of Saskatchewan made the final trade so they could do a citywide competition to fill the role.

The entire sequence took almost precisely a year, and is documented in his book “One Red Paperclip: How a Small Piece of Stationery Turned into a Great Big Adventure.” A Canadian named Nolan Hubbard won the movie role, and was indeed given a small speaking part when the film was released in 2009. His career soared from there with another small part in the movie “Rust.”

Today, how many paper clips are sold annually is anybody’s guess, but a figure often cited is 11 billion worldwide. As a tribute to the clip’s versatility, however, surveys find that perhaps only one in five is actually used to hold papers together. The rest are pressed into service as pipe cleaners, toothpicks, poker chips, sign hangers, and various technological purposes presented earlier. It would get my vote as the most underappreciated device in the office.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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