In a sea of change, behold these century old but still relevant office inventions

Dec 05, 2016 • By • 130 Views

By Tricia Drevets

They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. We know that modern offices have changed dramatically in the last few decades as electronics have replaced (or nearly replaced) typewriters, landlines, fax machines, pagers and even dictionaries.

However, a few common items in your workspace are anything but new. In fact, several office mainstays were invented more than 100 years ago. I don’t know about you, but as we end another year of the 21st century, I find that information comforting.

Let’s look at six office staples (no pun intended for number three) are at least a century old.

1. Paper clip. An American inventor named Samuel B. Fay applied for the first patent for a bent wire clip in 1867. His device was originally intended to attach tickets to fabric.

Most modern paper clips are variations of the Gem paper clip introduced in Britain in the 1870s but never patented. The handy clips are still called "Gem clips,” in parts of the world, and in Sweden, for example, the word for any paper clip is called a "gem.”

 Today’s paper clips come in metal and plastic and in a variety of sizes and colors.

2. Rubber band. A rubber band -- also called an elastic band, a laggy band, a gum band or British inventor Stephen Perry patented elastic, depending on where you live -- in 1845, six years after Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process used to make rubber.

Modern office rubber bands come in many sizes, widths and colors. No matter how high-tech we get, seems we still will need rubber bands to corral our stuff.

3. Brass fastener (aka brad). You know those little pronged brass things you use to fasten three- or four-hole paper together? You probably used them as a kid for school writing projects, and you probably have some in your desk drawer to bind together reports.  

A U.S. patent for this handy and timeless fastener was issued to George W. McGill back in 1866.

3. Stapler. A type of stapling device dates all the way back to 18th century France and the court of King Louis XV.

However, George McGill, the same guy who patented the brass paper fastener or brad, clearly was into office supplies. In 1867, he won the U.S. patent for a press to insert his paper fastener into paper.

In 1876, McGill displayed this invention -- the precursor to the modern stapler -- at the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he kept working on new designs for the next decade.

In 1868, C.H. Gould of England and Albert Kletzker of St Louis, Missouri also patented paper-stapling devices. Nine years later, Henry R. Heyl invented the first machine that inserted and clinched a staple in the “cha-chink style” we know today, and he generally considered the father of the modern stapler.

George McGill then was back at it again, and in 1879, he patented his “single-stroke staple press.” That device weighed two and a half pounds could drive a single half-inch wide wire staple through several sheets of paper.

4. Hole punch (or hole puncher). They come in desktop multiple hole versions and the traditional one-handed vise versions. The hole punch device was invented in the late 19th century by Germany’s Matthias Theel.

In addition to their office uses, single hole punches are used to invalidate admission tickets after they have been used, to make confetti and to cancel playing cards.

5. Legal pad. The ubiquitous yellow legal pad was invented in 1888 in Holyoke, Massachusetts by Thomas Holley, a 24-year-old paper mill worker. He collected leftover scrap paper, cut them to the same size and bound them into notepads.

At first, the mill sold the pads for an inexpensive price, but when their popularity soared, Holley quit his job to make and sell the pads on his own.

There are conflicting stories as to how the color yellow came to be associated with the pads. One theory is that Holley or his successors dyed the paper to make the paper scraps, which varied in age and quality, appear more uniform.

6. Manila envelope. Speaking of yellow, another century old office favorite is the yellow Manila envelope. These handy large envelopes are used to mail large documents and to transport inter-office correspondence.

The envelope, which come in types that close with a metal claps and with a loop tie, gets its name from Manila, the city in the Philippines where the hemp originally used to manufacture them was grown.

In the 1800s, the Manila hemp was used to make folders, not envelopes. Eventually, office demand called for the folders to be sealed at the two ends, thereby creating a large sturdy envelope.

Although it is grown elsewhere today, the Philippines still remains the largest producer of abaca, which is used to make rope, fiber arts, textiles, and, yes, paper.

So, the next time you open up a new package of paper clips or refill the office stapler, think about the fact that those and other simple office inventions have been around for more than a century and are still as useful as ever. Can’t say that about a fax machine.

About the Author

Tricia Drevets Tricia Drevets

Tricia Drevets is a freelance writer and educator who specializes in business and communication topics.

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