Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty
by Robert Friedel, W. W. Norton & Company, 256 pages, $23.00. CODE: NRT-1
Our everyday world is filled with the dense residue of unimagined human experience. Take the zipper, that most seemingly trivial of machines—hard even to think of as a machine. The story behind its invention is a saga of imagination, persistence, failure, defiant optimism, patience, and even romantic love. The first patent for a protozipper device was granted in 1893 to Whitcomb Judson of Chicago, an inventor full of far-fetched bright ideas. Like most of them, it didn’t work at all. Yet Judson somehow managed to find both an endlessly supportive financial backer and a persistent salesman to plug the device, and he kept trying to improve it. More than a decade later, a Swedish immigrant engineer named Gideon Sundback hired on at the little company trying to develop the still nearly hopeless thing—apparently lured mainly by his love for the boss’s daughter, whom he later married—and he resolved to make it work. Years went by. In 1913 Sundback finally, ingeniously, figured out the zipper as we know it. And then followed a struggle, just as long and hard, to get people to use it. It was sewn into money belts during World War I and showed up on rubber boots five years after the war, but for more than two decades it remained a marginal novelty item. It didn’t really catch on until the late 1930s.
Robert Friedel, a professor of the history of technology at the University of Maryland, is a first-rate storyteller, and he tells a story with a very colorful cast of characters that is engaging from beginning to end. Along the way he deftly draws out many lessons about the nature of invention: how uninevitable the most basic technological advance can really be and how utterly wrapped up with human desire and will all the machinery we surround ourselves with really is.