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September 22, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

The ubiquitous paper clip

Dominic Xavier's illustration If you were given "a piece of wire that is bent to a rectangular, triangular, or otherwise shaped hoop, the end parts of which wire piece form members or tongues lying side by side in contrary directions" -- what would you do with it?

Use it to bind sheets of paper together, I hope, because that is a description of one of the early versions of paper clip, the invention of a Norwegian called Johan Vaaler. This fragment of information is just one of countless revelations made in a fascinating book called The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski (the author of a book about another supremely useful thing, The Pencil).

It is humbling to realise how much thought, effort and, yes, even passion lies behind all manner of objects which we take for granted in the blurred momentum of our urban lives. By describing the conception of such items as zip fasteners, cutlery and "Scotch" tape, Petroski pays homage to the astounding inventiveness and optimism of our species.

Take, for example, sticky tape. I am one of those people who cannot survive for long without at least four different types of tape close at hand: Narrow and clear for basic bonding; broad and opaque for packing parcels; Scotch magic tape for sneaky repairs like torn currency notes: and the absolutely indispensable double-sided tape for any job which requires one sheet of paper to be attached as neatly as possible to another without the mess of wet glue.

According to this book, gummed tape evolved out of the 1925 fashion, in the US, for cars painted in two colours. A young salesman called Richard Drew, who worked for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company -- which, at that time, specialised in waterproof sandpaper, heard auto shop workers complaining about the difficulty they had painting these two-tone cars.

Producing clean edges between two shades of paint required some part of the car's surface to be protected while the second colour was being sprayed on. But the adhesive used to fix the protective mask onto the car was often so strong that it took one coat of paint off with it when the mask was removed.

Drew set himself the challenge of producing a type of paper which would adhere to a surface temporarily. It took him two years to chance upon crinkly paper as the ideal medium. The brand name Scotch, belonging to the company we all know now as 3M, is supposed to have arisen because the tape was initially adhesive only along its edges. Users reportedly complained that due to the "Scotch" stinginess of its manufacturers, the tape wasn't sticking properly! This resulted in the tape being gummed across its whole surface.

Similarly, in 1978, Art Fry, a chemical engineer also working for 3M, felt the need to mark the pages in his hymnal with bookmarks which wouldn't fall out. What he needed was an adhesive strong enough to keep a small scrap of paper from falling out of a book, yet weak enough not to damage the page it was on. A fellow employee and researcher called Stephen Silver had accidentally discovered just such an adhesive. Because the company they worked for took a benevolent view of extracurricular inventiveness, Fry was able, in a year-and-a-half of experimenting, to come up with the now ubiquitous little bits of paper called Post-its.

"Form follows function" has been a designer's mantra for many decades now. But, in his book, Petroski contends, "The form of one thing followed from the failure of another thing to function as we would like. Whether it is the bookmarks which fail to stay in place or taped-on notes that fail to leave a once-nice surface clean and intact, their failure... is what leads to the true evolution of artifacts."

What an attractive and hopeful thought this is! I read it to mean that failure is one of the building blocks of success: that failure can be, and often is, the foundation on which strong and vibrant ideas are built. Those of us who fail are generally given little encouragement except to be whipped to perform better the next time around. The celebration of success hides a fear and an abhorrence of failure; and yet, in a sense, failure in the form of death is the ultimate fate of every mortal being. How much gentler and more powerfully inclusive it is, therefore, to recognise that every failure is an invitation to improvise, improve and innovate.

In one example after the other, Petroski demonstrates his point: The safety-pin which evolved out of the failure of straight pins to protect their users from getting pricked; the incredible variety of hardware items, each invented and patentable only because they filled a need which some other item failed to satisfy; the endless variety of cans and their corresponding openers. There is such a thing as creative discomfort, Petroski's book suggests, which is the ultimate fount of all creation.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan