Today, an image of a zipper runs down Google’s home page in celebration of the 132nd birthday of Gideon Sundback, who helped make the device an indispensable item for today's man on the go. (Read that as you will.) Sundback did not invent the slide fastener, as it is generically called ("zipper" is actually a trade name for a version developed by the B.F. Goodrich company). Rather, he improved the device, which took several years to catch on, literally.
The story of the zipper made the June 1983 cover of Scientific American. The author, Louis Weiner, an engineer who held several patents related to the fastener, notes that credit for the invention goes to Whitcomb L. Judson, “who in 1893 received two U. S. patents for an automatic closing device actuated by a slide mechanism,” calling it a “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes.”
Judson's scheme consisted of a series of separate clasps, each of which consisted in turn of two interlocking parts, one attached to each side of the opening that was to be closed. They could be fastened by hand, but Judson also provided for a sliding device to close and open them in sequence.
In 1894 Judson and Lewis A. Walker organized the Universal Fastener Company to exploit the Judson patents. … Sales were poor, partly because the fasteners had a tendency to pop open under stress and partly because they were rather sharp and sometimes tore fabrics that came in contact with them.
In 1904 the company was reorganized as the Automatic Hook and Eye Company and offered an improved fastener under the name C-Curity. (An advertising slogan was "A Pull and It's Done.") The company had the advantage of a machine Judson had patented in 1902 to make the fasteners, which previously had been made by hand. It had the further advantage in 1906 of employing Gideon Sundback, an engineer who over a period of years greatly improved the fastener.
Even as other engineers continued to improve on the zipper, sales were poor, and the company verged on bankruptcy.
Then in 1917 Sundback received a patent on a metallic fastener that had all the features of the modern metallic zipper. In an interview he said: "The great need was to eliminate the hooks." The invention was so important to the company that it changed its name to the Hookless Fastener Company. Walker raised more capital and reincorporated the business with himself as president, a position he held until his death in 1938.
Gradually business improved. The first item to be manufactured in quantity with a slide fastener was a money belt developed in 1917 by a tailor in New York; it was popular among sailors in World War I. …
Soon after the war the introduction of slide fasteners on gloves and tobacco pouches helped to make the device familiar to civilian consumers. Probably the biggest impetus, however, came from the introduction of slide fasteners on galoshes in 1923 by the B. F. Goodrich Company, which also originated the name zipper and registered it as a trademark for the Goodrich line of rubber footwear.
Hand-drawn illustrations by artist Ian Worpole show how zippers work:
Users of our institutional site can purchase the full issue; search for "the slide fastener" or use this citation information: Scientific American 248, 132-144 (June 1983) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0683-132.