Where did office stuff come from?

Papyrus reeds growing on the banks of the Nile were cut into slices thousands of years ago by Egyptians. The strips were laid crosswise and pressed into sheets - paper! Long before Columbus first visited the New World, Aztec Indians living in what is now Mexico used shiny carbon to scratch ceremonial marks on slate and stone. (Rubber erasers, however, would not be discovered for centuries.) What other interesting tales can such everyday objects tell? Here are a few:

From stitcher to stapler Staplers used to be large, free-standing machines. The first ones appeared in 1877. They were operated by a foot pedal, and each U-shaped staple had to be carefully fed by hand. Doesn't sound like the sort of thing you'd have on your desk, does it?

But the real ancestor of the stapler we know today was the wire-stitching machine. This machine, invented by Thomas Briggs of Arlington, Mass., in 1896 was used to bind pages for pamphlets and magazines. (Many magazines today have a "perfect" binding, in which the pages are glued to a spine. But you can still find many "saddle stitched" publications that are stapled in the middle.)

In Briggs's machine, a piece of wire was cut and formed into a U shape. The ends of the wire were forced through the pages and crimped to form what was called a "stitch." He called his new company the Boston Wire Stitcher Company.

Meanwhile, in 1894, an improved stapler had a supply chamber into which loose staples were loaded. It still jammed a lot, though. Wrapping the loose staples in paper made them easier to handle and kept them in place. The easier-to-use staplers spread to more print shops.

How about a desk model?

The stapler as we know it didn't arrive in offices until 1914. The first ones used loose or paper-wrapped staples and were hard to use. The breakthrough model, a simplified version from the Boston Wire Stitcher Co., came out in 1923. It was soon followed by another innovation: staples that came glued in a strip. The new office devices were called Bostitch staplers, a short form of the company name. The name became so widely known that the company changed its name to Bostitch in 1948.

Getting a grip - on paper

What did people use before paper clips? One method involved tying papers together. With quill pens in wide use, everyone had a small-bladed penknife to cut points on the ends of goose feathers. The penknife's blade was pushed through the paper to make two short, parallel slits in the pages to be joined. Then a ribbon or string was threaded through the slits and tied - sometimes with an elaborate bow - and sealed with hot wax.

Later, straight pins were used. The story of pins is a tale in itself. They were handmade and costly. During the Middle Ages in Britain, pins were so scarce that pinmakers were only allowed to sell them on certain days. "Pin money" was set aside to purchase them.

But pins left holes, and the corners of papers could get pretty chewed up after being pinned and unpinned a few times. It took technological breakthroughs to begin to find a better way.

To make a paper clip, you need: (1) spring steel and (2) machines to shape it. Spring steel resists changing shape. It's elastic and wants to snap back into the shape into which it has been formed. So a spring-steel paper clip holds the papers, rather than being bent out of shape by them.

Johann Vaaler, a Norwegian, traditionally gets the credit for the first paper clip in 1899. So proud were the Norwegians of their countryman's invention that during World War II they fastened paper clips to their lapels to defy the Nazi occupation forces. For a Norwegian to wear a paper clip might mean an arrest! The function of the clip to bind things together took on the meaning of people joining together to resist the Germans.

Vaaler's device received an American patent in 1901. But was it the first paper clip? No.

Vaaler's American patent drawing shows several kinds of paper clips, from square to triangular to one that looks a lot like the elliptical ones in wide use today. But the wire does not form the familiar loop within a loop. An American, Matthew Schooley of Pennsylvania, had patented a "paper clip or holder" in 1896. In 1900, Cornelius Brosnan of Springfield, Mass., patented what the industry considers the first successful paper clip. Other versions date as far back as the 1870s.

But the Gem paper clip, the familiar one illustrated here, existed on paper as early as April 27, 1899. It appears on a patent issued to William Middlebrook of Waterbury, Conn. (The whole story is detailed in Henry Petroski's "The Evolution of Useful Things," Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.)

The Gem clip probably originated in Great Britain. By 1908, the simple, elegant Gem was being touted as the most popular paper clip in America.

Being stuck in the right place

Inventions often come about when the inventor is in the right place at the right time. Tape is a good example. For years, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (now 3M) sold sandpaper. One of 3M's best customers was the auto industry. But in 1925, Detroit was having a problem.

Two-tone paint jobs were the rage. They were flashy, but a nightmare to produce. How do you get a clean line between colors? Cloth surgeon's tape was available, but it was too sticky - it pulled off the paint it was supposed to protect - and the cloth tended to absorb wet paint and "bleed" it through.

The sandpaper salesman listened. His company was in the business of sticking grit to a paper backing. Before long, he returned with a new product: a light paper tape (some leftover crepe paper was used at first) with a not-too-sticky backing. Could it be run along a seam and peel off easily? Would paint drip off its filmy coating? Yes! Masking tape was born.

Later, the masking-tape adhesive was applied to cellophane, and tape as we know it came to be. But it wasn't until the tape dispenser came along, with its built-in serrated cutting edge, that cellophane tape became truly convenient to use.

A glue failure that succeeded

Post-it notes were unplanned. They began as an interesting dead end on the way to stronger glue.

Spencer Silver was a researcher in the 3M labs. In the 1970s, he was trying to create superstrong adhesives. What he found was a weak glue that could barely stick to anything. He told his fellow workers about his odd discovery, but then shelved it.

A few years later, another scientist at 3M, Art Fry, remembered Silver's untacky glue. Mr. Fry was having trouble with his hymnal markers. The paper scraps he used to keep his place kept falling out. Maybe if he treated them with that unsticky glue....

Not only did the markers stay in place, but with a little refinement they lifted off the pages without damaging the pages or leaving any residue. Fry spent a year and a half perfecting the markers before presenting them to a very skeptical marketing group. Consumers were not clamoring for a product like this. Why would anyone be interested?

Test marketing proved them wrong. By the early 1980s, "yellow stickies" had transformed offices. Today, people ask: What did we do without them?

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