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a fastening device consisting of two parallel tracks of teeth or coils that can be interlocked by pulling a sliding piece

The first device remotely resembling today's zipper was the "Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure," patented by Elias Howe in 1851. Howe never marketed his device, however, as he was too busy working on his sewing machine at the time.

The next man to work on a closure system for clothing was Whitcomb L. Judson, an engineer from Chicago, who invented a "Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes" in 1890. This device had a slider that ran over a row of boot hooks, drawing them together. The slide could then be removed, turned around, and used to pull the clasps open. Judson applied for a patent on November 7, 1891, and it was finally granted on August 29, 1893. Judson first exhibited his "Clasp Locker" at the Chicago World's Fair, where it was received with little fanfare. In 1894 he established the Universal Fastener Company in Chicago to manufacture and market the device, but the fastener proved too cumbersome and unreliable and was never successful.

Whitcomb Judson

patent drawing for Judson's Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes

Judson's Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes

By 1904 Judson had simplified his design into two rows of hooks and eyes, with each row attached to cloth tape. In 1905 he established the Automatic Hook and Eye Company in Hoboken, New Jersey, to market the "C-curity Fastener" to women, hoping they would use it on their skirts and dresses. Unfortunately, the "C-curity Fastener" was no more successful than the "Clasp Locker" had been. Judson died in 1909, before seeing his invention get improved enough to finally gain public acclaim.

The zipper as we now know it was developed by Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American engineer employed by the Automatic Hook and Eye Company. Sundback first improved Judson's "C-curity Fastener" by changing the hook and eye mating to make the closure more secure. The "Plako Fastener," as he called it, was initially targeted at dressmakers, but was also used for men's trousers. Although a definite improvement, the device was still unreliable because it wasn't flexible enough to remain closed when bent or twisted.

Gideon Sundback

Sundback continued to work on his design, and eventually came up with his "Hookless #1," which used the slide to force one side of the fastener, made of cloth tape with a beaded edge, into metal clamps on the other side. Unfortunately, the cloth tape proved to be a weak point of the device because it tended to tear after only a few uses.

The real breakthrough in zipper history came in 1913, when Sundback came up with the idea to fasten two rows of "scoop-shaped" teeth on opposing cloth tapes. It took him a few more years to develop a practical sliding mechanism, but he finally patented the "Separable Fastener" on March 20, 1917. After developing the machines needed to mass-produce the device, he established the Hookless Fastener Company, based in Meadville, New Jersey. The first orders for the "Separable Fastener" came from the U.S. Army Air Service and the U.S. Navy. It first came to the public's attention in 1921, when the B.F. Goodrich company used them on a line of rubber galoshes, which were marketed as "Zipper Boots."

patent drawing for Sundback's Separable Fastener

Zippers were used primarily on boots and tobacco pouches for the first twenty years or so of their existence, but in the 1930's a sales campaign began for children's clothing featuring zippers, praising them for promoting self-reliance in children by making it possible for them to dress themselves.

See Also

Elias Howe
Chicago World's Fair

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The Robinson Library >> Invention and Inventions

This page was last updated on 09/27/2018.