IBJOpinion

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

Tim Altom
September 11, 2010
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
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.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. I took Bruce's comments to highlight a glaring issue when it comes to a state's image, and therefore its overall branding. An example is Michigan vs. Indiana. Michigan has done an excellent job of following through on its branding strategy around "Pure Michigan", even down to the detail of the rest stops. Since a state's branding is often targeted to visitors, it makes sense that rest stops, being that point of first impression, should be significant. It is clear that Indiana doesn't care as much about the impression it gives visitors even though our branding as the Crossroads of America does place importance on travel. Bruce's point is quite logical and accurate.

  2. I appreciated the article. I guess I have become so accustomed to making my "pit stops" at places where I can ALSO get gasoline and something hot to eat, that I hardly even notice public rest stops anymore. That said, I do concur with the rationale that our rest stops (if we are to have them at all) can and should be both fiscally-responsible AND designed to make a positive impression about our state.

  3. I don't know about the rest of you but I only stop at these places for one reason, and it's not to picnic. I move trucks for dealers and have been to rest areas in most all 48 lower states. Some of ours need upgrading no doubt. Many states rest areas are much worse than ours. In the rest area on I-70 just past Richmond truckers have to hike about a quarter of a mile. When I stop I;m generally in a bit of a hurry. Convenience,not beauty, is a primary concern.

  4. Community Hospital is the only system to not have layoffs? That is not true. Because I was one of the people who was laid off from East. And all of the LPN's have been laid off. Just because their layoffs were not announced or done all together does not mean people did not lose their jobs. They cherry-picked people from departments one by one. But you add them all up and it's several hundred. And East has had a dramatic drop I in patient beds from 800 to around 125. I know because I worked there for 30 years.

  5. I have obtained my 6 gallon badge for my donation of A Positive blood. I'm sorry to hear that my donation was nothing but a profit center for the Indiana Blood Center.

ADVERTISEMENT