Great inventions of the 20th century

The usual response when asked about the great inventions of the 20th century would be to list some of the more famous ‘macro’ inventions which have a discernible impact upon the lives of many, many people: radio, aeroplanes, nuclear weapons, penicillin, television, computers and so on. This is to neglect the smaller innovations which have also changed our lives and allowed us to get on with things, the oft-neglected micro-innovations.

I was standing near some porcelain looking to relieve myself in the usual manner when I discovered that the toggle on the zipper had somehow broken off. I was not easily able to move the remnant zipper up or down and was becoming slightly annoyed by this, to the extent of uttering some mild profanities. At this point a fellow worker emerged from a cubicle and noted my discomfort.

“Can I do anything to help?”

“You could kneel down and try to move the zip for me, but anyone walking in might get the wrong idea.”

At this point we both determined that the best thing he could do was return to the office while I continued bumbling along trying to move the zipper up and down.

Wikipedia tells us that the zipper was patented in its modern form in 1913 century by Gideon Sundback, a Swedish engineer. It was almost twenty years before the fashion industry began seriously promoting the novel closure on garments.

In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children’s clothing featuring zippers. The campaign praised zippers for promoting self-reliance in young children by making it possible for them to dress in self-help clothing. The zipper beat the button in the 1937 in the “Battle of the Fly”, after French fashion designers raved over zippers in men’s trousers. Esquire magazine declared the zipper the “Newest Tailoring Idea for Men” and among the zippered fly’s many virtues was that it would exclude “The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray.”

 Having recently invested in some retro pants with buttons I have developed a new appreciation for the convenience of the zipper. While it hasn’t yet been an issue, I can see how in certain circumstances that one or two second time saving could be critical. No-one doubts that the judges in the “Battle of the Fly” made the right decision, notwithstanding the possibility of occasional painful contact between flesh and  metal.

Meanwhile, back in the cubicle, my friend had returned with another of the 20th century’s greatest inventions, that all purpose aid to office productivity and daisy chains, the paperclip.

The paperclip was probably invented in the 19th century but it was first patented in the 20th century. This has led the Norwegians to claim the paperclip as a great Norwegian invention, probably falsely. One reason for the confusion is that opinions vary about when certain design elements were introduced so as to give us the definitely modern ‘gem’ paperclip. Many of the twists and turns in the invention of the paperclip remain undocumented. One of the more novel uses of the paperclip was wearing one as a symbol of resistance to Nazi occupation during WWII.

I substituted the paperclip for the original toggle and I was finally able to raise and lower the zip in exactly the way the designer had intended. What a relief.

When people talk about great inventions, they often go past some of the most useful and ubiquitous innovations which have made everyone’s life a bit easier. So, here’s to the zipper and the paperclip. And I remain grateful that I did not need to call on the services of a third great 20th century innovation, the bandaid, when my zipper toggle broke off.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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