The humble paperclip is a feat of design genius

It’s genius on the smallest scale.

The standard paperclip, formally known as the Gem paperclip, is easily one of the best designed products of all-time, says industrial designer Peter Rohles.

Think about it: A paperclip can hold dozens of sheets of paper when in use with nothing but three turns of a wire. When inert, it takes up almost no space at all.

The paperclip was designed around the 1890s and hasn’t changed since, despite holding no patent. It is widely considered the most popular style paperclip in the world. 

When you want to attach a file to an email, what symbol do you a click on? A paper clip, of course.

But like many feats of engineering, reducing the paperclip to such a simple design was deceptively tricky.

The United Kingdom’s Gem Manufacturing Company had to ensure the wire was elastic enough to wrap around multiple sheets of paper, but featured enough torsion — the application of torque — between the twisting wires to keep the paper in place. It also had to do this without creating so much friction that it tore the paper.

The Gem clip uses the least amount of wire, requires basic machines to create the loops, and refuses to get tangled with other paperclips when it’s stowed away.

Its production is mesmerising to watch:

The current design may seem obvious, but lesser designs show how elegant the Gem paperclip really is.

Take the Italian paperclip, a circular clip that awkwardly slides over the material in a spiral fashion:

Other popular designs lose their grip over time, such as the Owl …

… or the ambitiously named Ideal paperclip.

The Gem gets weaker, too, but unlike the Owl or Ideal, it can easily be bent back to regain some tightness.

Other constructions also take up considerable space, like the equally bulky binder clip, Rohles points out. 

“I can have a small tray filled with paperclips,” he says. “That same tray can only hold a dozen binder clips.”

The small office supply also holds special weight in Norway, of all places.

During World War II, students would wear paperclips around their necks and fashion them into bracelets as a symbol of resistance.

As Nazis had driven much of the Norwegian government into exile in England, Olso University students protested the German rule by “binding” together with paperclips. The display of solidarity was in part due to a myth that Norwegian inventor Johann Vaaler was the paperclip’s originator.

Today, the Gem paperclip stands outside BI Commercial College in Sandvika, Norway, as a testament to the tiny object’s lasting contributions.

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