Updated: Sep 6, 2022
Most inventions are not the creation of one person’s idea and development, but rather the result of many individual’s improvements on previous models. The light bulb, sewing machine, telephone, and zipper are all such inventions.
The earliest ancestor of the zipper was the ‘Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure’ – an idea patented by Elias Howe in 1851 that he never developed into a working model. That didn’t come until 1893 when Chicago inventor Whitcomb Judson developed the ‘Clasp Locker’ – a complicated hook-and-eye fastener that he debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair. With business partner Colonel Lewis Walker, Whitcomb launched the Universal Fastener Company with plans to improve and manufacture his closure under the name the ‘Judson C-curity Fastener.
Enter Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-born electrical engineer who was hired by the Universal Fastener Company. His engineering skills and fortuitous marriage to the plant-manager’s daughter, Elvira Aronson, resulted in his quick rise up the corporate ladder to head designer. When Elvira died in 1911, the grieving Sundback threw himself into his work, improving the ‘Judson C-curity Fastener’ until he created the modern zipper as we know it today.
Sundback increased the number of teeth from four to eleven per inch, had two facing-rows of identically designed teeth, rather than hooks and eyes, and increased the opening for the teeth on the slider to prevent jamming. A patent for his ‘Separable Fastener’, as he called it, was issued in 1917. Sundback also created the machine for manufacturing his new fastener.
The name ‘zipper’ was created in 1924 by the B. F. Goodrich Company to market Sundback’s fastener on their Goodrich galoshes. Zippers were slow to be adopted by the fashion industry but by the late 1930s the zipper was beginning to be used more often. Couturiers Charles James and Elsa Schiaparelli were fond of using the shiny celluloid zippers, made in Canada by Lightning Zipper Co.
The zipper is sometimes erroneously referred to as a Canadian invention because Sundback had sold foreign rights for the development of the zipper to a British company that founded the Canadian subsidiary – Lightning Zipper Company. Sundback was instilled as president of Lightning in 1925, and retained that position until his death in 1954, which led many to think Sundback was Canadian.