The 'fastening' history of the zipper

by Maciej Armatys and Charles Bruel,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique School of Montreal

Did you know that most of your clothes have two brands? The first one, you pay for it, but the second goes undetected. Can you guess what is the object? Here is one clue: it’s the last thing you touch while dressing. Any idea? No, not a button… Okay, second clue: it’s a fastener named after the noise it produces. Yes, you got it: a Zipper! Now look closely, it has its own brand too and its own history.

The Zipper is used in everyday applications. In addition to fastening our clothing, we may use it on many other products such as backpacks, sporting items, and camping gear. Because it looks rather simple, it is often neglected or ignored. Until you break it, rendering your item unusable and in need of repair. Constructed with 12 different components, this marvellous little mechanism came to see the light of day through numerous improvements and contributions from three persistent inventors.

The very idea of the Zipper came from the American Elias Howe, in 1851.  You read it well, Elias Howe, the man who also contributed to the invention of the sewing machine with an innovative model patented in 1845. Because he was mainly focused on a judiciary conflict with the company Singer about the paternity of the sewing machine, he missed his opportunity to fully develop a commercial application for his Zippers, which were made of a combination of hooks and eyes.

It is in 1893 that Whitcomb Judson, another American, patented a new design for Zippers and proposed an application in the boot industry. Though his product was less reliable which prevented its spread to other applications.

In response to the fashion boom, the modern Zipper was finally modified in 1917 by the Swedish electrical engineer Gideon Sunback, who replaced the hooks and eyes concept by the current teeth design. He also increased the number of elements per unit of length, resulting in much more robust Zippers.Sunback also invented the first industrial process for Zipper production, which could produce up to 100 metres a day!

This story illustrates the iterative development of the device.  As a society evolves, our needs will alter in consequence to our technology. This adaptation is secured by the people who build on past ideas and mold them to current trends. Also, you don’t have to be an expert in the field to make an impact (as was the case with Sunback -  electrical engineer), this reinforcement great ideas can be multidisciplinary. Therefore, even a small today-meaningless object has the potential to grow into an indispensable future-item if it receives the proper attention.

Today more than a 1000 linear kilometres of Zippers are fabricated each day. Japan is one of the main producers, with the YKK brand name you usually see on the puller. Go see for yourself!

Finally, the Zipper is quite inspirational to us PhD candidates. If you think about it, the Zipper itself represents the core of knowledge: by pulling the slide, we are fastening little pieces of independent knowledge together to make something new (i.e., extend the zipper’s length). But don’t forget, never underestimate the size of one's contribution, like the Zipper, all teeth are equal and the Zipper won't close properly if there is a missing tooth.