Sunday, 21 September 2014

The grip of the paper clip

I have an essay on the paper clip in Grace Lees-Maffei’s edited collection Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things, which is published this week by Bloomsbury. Here is a very brief extract:

‘If all that survives of our fatally flawed civilization is the humble paper clip, archaeologists from some galaxy far, far away may give us more credit than we deserve,’ the design critic Owen Edwards argues in his book Elegant Solutions. ‘In our vast catalog of material innovation, no more perfectly conceived object exists.’ The double oval shape of a paper clip is instantly recognisable. The way that it turns in on itself with its three hair-pin bends and rounded top and bottom - in France paper clips are known as ‘trombones’ - seems like the perfect marriage of form and function. Cheap and easy to reproduce, paper clips have remained virtually the same for over a hundred years. Despite the odd variation - coloured paper clips with plastic coatings, square-edged rather than rounded ones, jumbo clips with corrugated finishes, avant-garde versions with a ‘v’ replacing the inner curve – the design of the classic paper clip remains unchallenged. With the gentle, sliding action of a paper clip we bring paper, and some small element of our lives, under control.

The mass-produced paper clip as we know it dates back to the late 19th century, when the first machines emerged that could bend and cut steel wire cheaply and cleanly. For the modern paper clip is based on the theory of elasticity or springiness, as elaborated as early as 1678 by the physicist Robert Hooke in his Lectures de potentia restitutiva. Hooke’s law, Ut tensio sic uis, or ‘as is the extension so is the force’, means that the extension of a spring, or the displacement from its original position, is directly proportional to the force applied. The spring-steel wire of a paper clip is easily bendable but also wants to revert to its original shape (provided it is not bent too dramatically), allowing it to glide over papers easily and to fasten them reasonably securely …

A paper clip on its own has virtually no monetary or aesthetic value, which is why so many remain forever unused, absent-mindedly vacuumed up by cleaners or twisted into a useless elongated wire by bored office workers. The phrase ‘minister for paper clips’ is used in British political life to describe a job of no importance, usually in the Cabinet office. In July 2005, a 26-year-old Canadian, Kyle McDonald, announced that he was embarking on a quest to trade a single red paper clip for a house. Advertising this almost worthless piece of stationery on the internet, he succeeded in swapping it for a succession of bigger and better things until nine months and only ten trades later (including a doorknob, a party pack of beer and a snowmobile), he was the owner of a one-bedroom bungalow in Phoenix, Colorado … 

The history and design of the paper clip is much messier and more nuanced than what is usually implied by the increasingly casual use of the word ‘iconic’. As the design historian Henry Petroski argues in The Evolution of Useful Things, it is nowhere near as perfectly functional an object as it at first appears. Paper clips are at best an elegant compromise between loose leafs and the stapler: their grip on the paper can be too firm (they can dig into the top page and leave scratches) but also too loose (they have a tendency to slide off, particularly when placed in piles with other paper-clipped documents). And this is perhaps the best evidence of the paper clip’s iconicity, that it has a reputation for design flawlessness it does not deserve. As Petroski puts it, ‘its grip on the minds of critics is no doubt more secure than its grip on their manuscripts’.