Manufacturers produce zippers by the billions each year, but the device wasn’t always such a success. In the early stages of development, zippers went through design revisions, unsuccessful marketing attempts and a few name changes. Zippers are abundant today due to the tremendous patience of investors, an engineer who gave the product its crucial final touches and World War I, when the zipper was mass produced for the first time.
First Zipper Versions
The first semblance of a zipper model traces back to Elias Howe, the founder of the sewing machine. In 1851, he created a patent for a device named An Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure, which had a similar function to the modern zipper, although the composition was significantly different. The product operated as individual clasps that were joined manually, and pulled shut by using a string, creating a “gathered” effect. Ultimately, Howe did not continue developing his model, and several years went by before another patent was created.
More than 40 years later, inventor Whitcomb L. Judson began devising the patent “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes.” The design was essentially a guide (now known as a fastener or slider) that was used to close the space between a shoe’s clasps on one side to the attachments on the other. The guide could be removed after use, and had the double function of pushing the bulky clasps down and subsequently pulling them together to close. The guide was difficult to produce due to its very specific functions, and was also seen as time consuming.
Whitcomb’s second patent in 1893 was a transition from the former bulky clasps to hooks and eyes. This device, later called “C-curity” was a series of loops (short metal extensions) that were manually laced into the boot or shoe. The improvement was significant because the device functioned as a unit instead of as individual clasps. Eventually, it proved to be ineffective because it had a tendency to spring open.
Engineer Gideon Sundback ultimately enhanced the previous zipper models by devising a model called the “Plako fastener.” The design featured oval hook units that would protrude from the tape they were attached to, and provided a more secure fit than the previous “C-curity” design. Although the model had a tighter fit, it was not flexible. Also, it did not stay closed when it was bent and posed some of the same problems as the earlier hook design.
The Final Design and Production
In 1913, Sundback revised and introduced a new model, which had interlocking oval scoops (instead of the previously used hooks) that could be joined together tightly by a slider in one movement or swoop. This final model is recognized as the modern zipper, which took many months to find success in the industrial market. Retailers, who were prone to sticking with traditional materials and design methods, were slow to purchase the product. In the early stages of production, zippers were used exclusively for boots and tobacco pouches. During World War I, military and navy designers acquired zippers for flying suits and money belts, ultimately helping the reputation of the device’s durability. It was B.F. Goodrich, (which used the product for boots and galoshes in the 1920’s) that gave the device the name zipper, after the sound, or “zip” that the slider created.
Originally, manufacturers produced metal zippers, which are effective when used for heavy weight or thick materials. These metal zippers were made in aluminum, nickel and brass and were eventually incorporated into every day wear, such as denim. Designers accelerated the success of zippers with even more materials, such as plastic zippers, which are soft, pliable and easy to maintain. Gradually, manufacturers saw the product’s selling ability and versatility, and zippers, now available in a variety of materials and designs like coils and colored metallic, finally achieved widespread success.