Hail to Thee, Noble Clip!
By Patrick F. Cannon
It is to our shame that so many of mankind’s greatest inventions lie near to hand, things we use almost every day, yet the great men or women responsible for making life on this benighted planet just a bit more bearable are largely forgotten.
In this regard, I give you the noble paper clip, and its inventor, Shepworth Clipper. Now, a great many people believe to this day that the term “paper clip” comes from the ancient Druid word, clippe. How absurd! It is a far, far journey from a word that denoted – and still does – the action of cutting things in twain to our subject word. We can clip a hedge, or a nose hair, but what does this word have to do with the implement that gathers two or more pieces of paper together? Nothing, I say!
Now, to the true derivation. It seems that young Shepworth – “Shep” to his intimates – was employed as a clerk for one of the underwriters who made up the legendary Lloyds of London. It was the 1840s, and the young man was tasked with making handwritten copies of insurance policies. Just as is the case today, the policies were many pages long; so long, in fact, that it was nearly impossible to read them without dozing, which many policy holders did before getting to the exclusions.
Shep was fastidious about keeping his pages in order, but one of his fellow clerks, by name of Augustus Finknottel, was a fresh air fiend, and was given to throwing open a window without warning, turning the office into a maelstrom of flying papers. Occasionally, Shep had prudently put a paperweight on the accumulating papers, but was apt to forget. Even when the copying was done, one had to find a way to keep them together and in order.
One method was to punch a hole in the corner and tie the pages together with a length of ribbon or string. Or one could place the pages in a folder and tie it together with a ribbon. Alas, with this method, the pages were inclined to fall out the bottom if one wasn’t careful. With the other, if you wanted to correct a page, you had to undo the ribbon, remove the offending page, then tie the document back together. Bothersome, you must admit.
Then one day, quite by accident – think Newton’s apple if you will – the problem was solved in a moment of inspiration. It seems Shep had wire baskets on his desk for incoming and outgoing documents. On one of them, a length of wire had come asunder. As young men are wont to do, he began bending it back and forth until – predictably – it came apart. He bent it back and forth and – in one of those eureka moments that changes the course of history — put the ends of the wire over the papers and pressed. It was a moment he never forgot, a moment that has entered the lore of the office supplies business, a moment still remembered at their annual conventions with the Shepworth Clipper Award for Innovation.
The rest of the story is quickly told. Realizing that he would never be able to make sufficient of his new invention by himself to satisfy demand, he went to one of the numerous workshops that employed idle boys as a way of keeping them off the streets. Working with the headmaster, Mr. Fagin, he devised a simple jig that the young hands could use to form the clips. Soon, they were working like the dickens to keep up with demand. Eventually, the little tykes were put out of work by automation as word of the new inventions spread around the world. Indeed, the now wealthy Mr. Clipper designed special ships to speed the product to his waiting customers.
So, the next time you use a paper clip, please think of Shepworth Clipper, unsung benefactor of the toiling office drudge.
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon