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Whitcomb Judson

The Zipper

Most of the fastening devices used in clothing today, like the shoelace, the button, and the safety pin, have existed in some form in various cultures for thousands of years. But the zipper was the brainchild of one American inventor, namely Whitcomb Judson of Chicago.

At the end of the 19th century, Judson was already a successful inventor, with a dozen patents to his credit for mechanical items such as improvements to motors and railroad braking systems. He then turned his mind to creating a replacement for the lengthy shoelaces which were then used in both men's and women's boots. On August 29th, 1893, he won another patent, for what he called the "clasp-locker." Though the prototype was somewhat clumsy, and frequently jammed, it did work: in fact, Judson and his business associate Lewis Walker had sewn the device into their own boots.

Although Judson displayed his clasp-locker at the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893, the public largely ignored it. The company founded by Judson and Walker, Universal Fastener, despite further refinements, never really succeeded in marketing the device. Only in 1913, after a Swedish-American engineer, Gideon Sundbach, had remodeled Judson's fastener into a more streamlined and reliable form, was the zipper a success. The US Army applied zippers to the clothing and gear of the troops of World War I; by the late 1920s, zippers could be found in all kinds of clothing, footware, and carrying cases; by the mid-1930s, zippers had even been embraced by the fashion industry.

The term "zipper" was coined as an onomatopoeia by B. F. Goodrich, whose company started marketing galoshes featuring the fastener in 1923. Regrettably, Whitcomb Judson died in 1909, and never heard the term, or saw the success, by which his invention would become ubiquitous.

[March 1997]

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