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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  1. A couple of issues need some clarification especially since my name was on the list. I am not sure how this information was obtained and from where. For me, the amount was incorrect to begin with and the money does not come to me personally. I am guessing that the names listed are the Principal Investigators (individual responsible for the conduct of the trail) for the different pharmaceutical trials and not the entity which receives the checks. In my case, I participate in Phase II and Phase III trials which are required for new drug development. Your article should differentiate the amount of money received for consulting, for speaking fees, and for conduct of a clinical trial for new drug development. The lumping of all of these categories may give the reader a false impression of physicians just trying to get rich. The Sunshine Law may help to differentiate these categories in the future. The public should be aware that the Clinical Trial Industry could be a real economic driver for Indiana since these revenues supports jobs and new job creation. Nationally, this account for 10-20 billion which our State is missing out on to a large degree. Yes, new drug and technology development has gotten most of the attention (e.g. CTSI, BioCrossroads, etc.) However, serious money is being left on the table by not participating in the clinical trials to get those new drugs and medical devices on the market!!!! I guess that this is not sexy enough for academia.

  2. The address given for the Goldfish Swim Club is the Ace Hardware, is it closing?

  3. Out of state management and ownership. If Kite controlled it, everything would be leased. Of course, due to the roundabout, there is limited access to the south side of 116th now also. Just have to go down to the light.

  4. Hey smudge, You're opposed to arresting people for minor crimes? Sounds great! We should only focus on murders and such, right? Let's stand around and wait until someone shoots someone before we act. Whatever we do, we should never question anyone, frisk anyone, or arrest anyone unless they are actively engaged in shooting or stabbing. Very sound!

  5. You guys are being really rude to gays in the comments. (Not all of you, I presume). You need to stop it. Gays have just as much of a right to marry as straight people do. It's not fair how you guys are denying them equal rights. They're acting more human than you'll ever be. We obviously haven't matured since the bible was last updated. Hate the sin, not the sinner. You've all committed a sin at least once in your life. You've lied, you've stolen, etc. (Those are just possibilities). We should have a planet for people that support gay rights and a planet for people that don't. Then, gay people could get married without you bigots interfering with their love life. How would you feel if straights couldn't get married? How would you feel if teenagers were afraid to come out to their parents as straight? If straight people got hate everywhere they went? If straight people were afraid to go out in public, because they feared being judged? It's never going to happen at the rate society is going. You haven't seen the side of me where I act obscene. You're glad my inner demon hasn't been released. I would, but oh no, my comment would be removed because of my very strong emotions about this subject. I love gays, and love how they show their affection for each other. I just ADORE how a state is going to give same-sex couples a marriage license, then changes their mind. (I was obviously being sarcastic there). I just LOVE how society thinks gays are an abomination to our society. You're caring about marriage between two men or two women. That's a small thing. Just grow up, and let them marry. Let them live their lives. You can't make them change their sexuality. You can't make them change their lifestyle. In my opinion, gays are more than welcome to marry. Please, grow up and realize that people should be allowed to marry, even if it's same-sex marriage. You guys are saying that "the bible said gay marriage is wrong." Well, guess what else is wrong? Read Matthew:7 and you'll find out. (I am in no way breaking that. I am saying a fact). I'm stating that gays have just as much of a right to marry as straights do. (: