On this day in 1913, a Swedish engineer named Gideon Sundback, of Hoboken, NJ, patented a “separable fastener,” which we know today as the All-Purpose Zipper. Without which, we’d all be struggling with button-fly pants whether they were a fashion statement or not.
But Sundback didn’t come up with this mechanical marvel on his own, whole-cloth. He built it on the backs of other inventors, who developed and patented “automatic continuous clothing closures” and “clasp lockers.” The clasp locker even earned enough attention (and money) from an investor to form a manufacturing company. But the design failed to catch on until the company hired Sundback to improve upon the device. Sundback did so by creating more teeth per inch than previous closures and mounting the teeth on a tape. BF Goodrich coined the name “zipper” when they used the device on rubber boots and it stuck.
It took twenty more years before the zipper made its way into our pants, though. The fashion industry remained buttoned up in buttons and laces until someone in the industry well known for its “hook ’em while they’re young” attitude in both marketing and manufacturing (at least until child labor laws catch up to them in various parts of the world) began promoting zippers in children’s clothing as a means to promote self-reliance in the young.
Like so many inventors, creators, and makers before and after him, Sundback built on the shoulders of those who had come before him. He took a design and made it more useful and relevant, and today, we can keep our pants from falling down thanks to the collective efforts of a series of inventors who each went one better, and enterprising thinkers who came up with previously unconsidered ways of using something useful.