Gideon Sundback and the invention of the zipper

Time for some clever inventions again – today, 24 April, we celebrate the birthday of Gideon Sundback (24 April 1880 – 21 June 1954), the Swedish-born electrical engineer who is best known for his contribution to the development of the zipper.

In the decade between 1906 and 1914, while working for a number of different companies, Sundback made several meaningful contributions to the development of the zipper. While he did not come up with the original concept, he improved on the ideas of others, including Elias Howe, Whitcomb Judson and Max Wolff. One of the key problems Sundback solved was to create a version of the zipper that didn’t pull apart easily. He essentially did away with the hook-and-eye principle of earlier versions, and also increased the number of fastening elements. His version of the zipper included two sides with interlocking teeth, that are locked together or separated using a slider, much like the modern zipper we know today.

Gideon Sundback's 1914 'separable fastener' was almost identical to the zipper as we know it today. (© All Rights Reserved)
Gideon Sundback’s 1914 ‘separable fastener’ was almost identical to the zipper as we know it today.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Sundback also designed a machine to manufacture the zippers, which could produce about 100m of zipper per day. He incrementally improved his design, and the version he patented in 1914 (called the ‘Hookless No 2’) is essentially the same as the modern metal zipper.

Still called a ‘separable fastener’ up to this point, the zipper only became known as a ‘zipper’ when BF Goodrich coined the term in 1923 for the new fasteners used in their boots. Boots and tobacco pouches were the first widespread applications of the new separable fasteners, and it was only after the second world war, shortly before Sundback’s death, that the zipper gained widespread acceptance in the clothing industry.

In acknowledgement for his work, Sundback was included in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. Google also created a special commemorative zipper doodle on his birthday in 2012.

Celebrating Ruth Benerito and her quick-drying, flame-retardant, crease and stain resistant fabrics

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ruth Rogan Benerito (born 12 Jan 1916), the American chemist and inventor whose innovations in fabric technology have saved the world many many hours slogging away in front of the ironing board. Dr Benerito was the inventor of wash and wear cotton fabric.

As if this wasn’t enough of a gift to the world, Benerito also came up with numerous other innovations – in total she has been granted no less than 55 patents related to textile technology. Thanks to her we now have fabrics that are quicker drying,  crease and stain resistant, comfortable and better able to retard flames. She also developed a cotton textile cleaning technique (adopted widely in the Japanese textile industry) using radiofrequency cold plasmas. This method replaces the commonly used technique of pre-treating cotton with sodium hydroxide, as such greatly reducing the environmental impact.  Many of her innovations also found application in the wood and paper industries.

No more ironing for hours - just wash, dry and wear.(© All Rights Reserved)
No more ironing for hours – just wash, dry and wear.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The key to the wrinkle-resistant fabric was a process called molecular cross-linking. She discovered that the long chain-like cellulose molecules that make up cotton fibre can be chemically treated so they are bound (cross-linked) together – a process that strengthens the hydrogen bonds between the cellulose molecules, leading to the advantageous result that the cotton becomes less prone to wrinkling.

On an almost completely unrelated note, far removed from her important and ground-breaking work in textiles, Benerito also developed a novel technique to administer fat intravenously to patients too sick or wounded to eat. This innovation has helped save the lives of thousands of people  by maintaining their nutrition levels during severe illness.

From clothing to nutrition, these are some truly useful innovations indeed!

About clip-on ties, real ties and mathematics

Rumor has it that today, 84 years ago in 1928, some clever folk came up with the concept of the clip-on tie. You know, those ties that look like the real deal, but instead of being tied around your neck just consist of the hanging bit with a permanent knot at the top, which can be attached to your shirt via a little metal clip stuck to the back of the knot.

Try as you might, but a clip-on tie will never have the 'oomph' of a classy, properly tied tie.(© All Rights Reserved)
Try as you might, but a clip-on tie will never have the ‘oomph’ of a classy, properly tied tie.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m not sure if it was originally designed for people too lazy to tie a tie, or for people who had difficulty mastering the skill, but it proved to be quite a useful invention. Disabled people can use it without trouble. So can kids. Cops and security personnel wear clip-on ties as a safety precaution – it negates the potential risk of being strangled by your conventional necktie. Similarly, people in factory environments who wear ties are also advised to wear clip-ons – in the unfortunate event that the tie gets caught in a piece of machinery, it will simply clip off, rather than pulling its owner into the machine as well. (Then again, why people in factories would wear ties I have no idea.)

On the downside, clip-ons aren’t exactly haute couture – you are unlikely to get a designer-styled, silk clip-on tie. And a clip-on tie pretty much looks like a clip-on tie – the unique individuality of a slightly unsymmetrical knot is not an option. And of course you cannot go for the cool chic of the ‘loosened tie look’ with your clip-on tie – well, I guess you can clip it on to one side of your loosened collar, but somehow it just ain’t going to have the same effect!

So what does a clip-on tie have to do with science, you may ask? Well, very little, but it did bring to mind a mathematics book by Thomas Fink and Yong Mao, called ‘The 85 ways to tie a tie’ – a book where the authors use concepts from topology and a mathematical representation of knots to prove that a conventional neck tie can be tied in exactly 85 possible ways. The 85 ways are pretty theoretical – apparently only a dozen or so are sufficiently unique and handsome to be sensible candidates for an actual tie knot.

Yes, today is about ties, but as is often the case, the maths are lurking just below the surface!

Dress sharp and look the part on International Suit-up Day

Today, 13 October, is International Suit-up Day, the day to get out your smartest suit and ‘look sharp’. With the day falling on a Saturday this year, I guess sporting a formal ‘black tie’ look at work won’t really be an option for most people, but there’s nothing wrong with a night on the town dressed up like someone who just stepped off the set of the Godfather.

Mention the word ‘suit’, and a couple of images involuntarily pop into most people’s minds.

  • First and foremost, you cannot help thinking about the classic mob movies such as the Godfather series, where the characters look as dangerous as they do smart, and you just know you don’t mess with a guy in a suit.
  • Then, of course, there’s the sharp dressed singers of old; Frank Sinatra (OK, perhaps he belongs to the first category above), Leonard Cohen (who has famously proclaimed that he has simply never felt comfortable in a pair of blue jeans) and the younger contenders like Michael Buble and the like.
  • For the twenty-somethings, suits will probably be synonymous with Barney Stinson, the sharp-dressed character from the hit TV series How I Met Your Mother, who refuses to be seen in anything but a suit and tie, even when he’s in bed. I am sure Barney deserves an award for making suits cool again to a new generation.
Suits are synonymous with sharp dressed dudes smoking fat cigars and playing poker.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On the topic of suits, it is interesting how the way you dress influence the way you are perceived by others. Whether it’s dressing in a suit, or a scientist’s lab coat, or a pair of torn jeans and a t-shirt, your choice of clothing goes a long way towards determining people’s opinions of you before you’ve said a word, and before they’ve even met you.

Suits in particular can have a strong impact – numerous behavioral science studies have shown how dressing sharply can increase your perceived status among peers, boost self-confidence, and even make you more productive at work. For a mini-masterclass on suits and sharp dressing, look no further than the US TV show Suits. When Ross (a young lawyer who passed the bar but didn’t go to law school) asks, “What does it matter how much I spend on suits?” Harvard graduate Specter replies, “People respond to how you dress so like it or not this is what you have to do.”

It turns out what you wear may even influence how you feel about yourself, and how you act. You’ve probably all heard the advice to people who work from home, that says you should dress as though you’re going to work, as it will influence how professional you come across on the phone etc. (Apparently wearing a singlet and underpants won’t do the trick if you’re planning to spend some quality phone-time with your clients.) Beyond this amusing fact, research reported in the New York Times has shown how people wearing lab-coats actually become more attentive and precise in their actions. Researchers got a group of people to wear white coats (said to be scientists’ lab coats) and then perform mental tests. These were compared to a reference group wearing their normal attire, and the ‘scientists’ did significantly better in the test. Surprisingly, when the test was repeated with new groups, but the overcoat-wearing group were told they were wearing artists’ coats, they did not perform any better than the reference group.

If you extrapolate this to suits, wearing a suit may well influence how you perform at different tasks. The problem is, however, that your opinion of suit-wearers will colour the impact the suit will have on you. If you consider suit-wearers to be important, responsible, trust-worthy people that you look up to, wearing a suit may well result in you ‘stepping up to the challenge’ and acting more responsibly yourself. If, however, you see suit-wearers as sharks and underhanded crime lords, donning a suit may perhaps not do your personality any good…

Whatever your normal daily attire, today is a chance to go all out.  Dig out your best suit, heck, rent one if you don’t have one, and live like Ol’ Blue Eyes for a day.  Here’s to a dashing International Suit-up Day – have fun!

John Macarthur and the birth of the Australian wool industry (not just another Aussie sheep joke!)

Today we celebrate the birthday of John Macarthur (3 Sep 1767 – 11 Apr 1834) the English-born Aussie who is recognised as the pioneer of the wool industry that boomed in Australia in the early 19th century, and has since been one of the country’s agricultural trademarks.

Sheep – serious business Down Under.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Macarthur was born in Plymouth, Devon in the UK. He began his career in the army, and after various assignments and activities became part of the New South Wales corps in 1789 and was posted to faraway Sydney, Australia. A fiery character, his life story reads like a historical romance novel, with way too many saucy details (battles with authorities, involvement in a military coup, land battles and much more) to get into on this forum.

Suffice to say, after settling in Australia, Macarthur got involved in rearing sheep for mutton, purchasing his first flock in 1795. He also purchased a small flock of Spanish Merino, imported from the Cape Colony (part of the later South Africa) in 1797. The merino is an excellent wool breed, and it didn’t take long for Macarthur to recognise the economic potential of wool production for export, as opposed to simply rearing sheep for the local meat-market. What made wool a potential export hit was the fact that it was a non-perishable commodity (a necessary feature, given Australia’s distance from the markets of the UK and Europe) and offered a high value per unit of weight.

On a trip back to London he lobbied for more land, and succeeded in being granted 5000 acres of the best pasture land in New South Wales. He became the largest sheep rearer in the colony, and made a fortune exporting merino wool to the UK, who were at the time cut off from their traditional wool supplier, Spain, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. He also gained recognition for producing wool of the finest quality, which further upped the prices at which he was able to sell his produce.

Macarthur’s ventures opened the door for others to follow, and Australia’s wool export market started to boom in the early 19th century. It remains a key export commodity, with Australia remaining the world’s largest producer of the wool, mainly from merino sheep. New Zealand is in second place, and China in third. The wool produced in Australia and New Zealand is considered to be of the finest international quality – the best Aussie and Kiwi merino wool is known as grade 1PP, and is the industry benchmark of excellence for merino wool.

Natural wool is one of nature’s super-products. It is technically superior to synthetic materials in various ways – it has better heat insulation and superior hydryphilic properties, it is naturally flame-retardant, resistant to static electricity, and hypoallergenic.  Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have developed a material blending wool and kevlar (the material often used in body armour) and it was found that the blend was lighter and cheaper, and outperformed kevlar in damp conditions.

What’s more, wool is also environmentally preferable to materials like nylon or polypropylene. According to the latest research on the role of wool in the natural  carbon cycle, it has been suggested that under the correct circumstances, wool production can potentially be carbon neutral.

So while the Aussies and Kiwis may suffer endless jokes relating to their sheep, the product being produced is something very special.  And John Macarthur deserves a tip of the hat as the bloke who kicked it all off more than 200 years ago.

Going Green on Sewing Machine Day

It’s Sewing Machine Day, the day to dust off and celebrate the trusty sewing machine, unsung hero of the industrial revolution.

Tracking the invention of the sewing machine is like reading the script of a sensational TV drama – a juicy tale of betrayal and deceit, industrial sabotage, stolen ideas and legal battles. The first patented design dates back to Thomas Saint in 1790, followed by various iterative improvements, but the first commercially viable design came some 60 years later, courtesy of Isaac Merritt Singer who combined ideas from various previous designs.  Unfortunately he borrowed a bit too heavily from a patent by Elias Howe, who promptly took him to court for patent infringement, winning the case and forcing Singer to pay him a fee for every sewing machine sold.

Despite its checkered past, the sewing machine quickly gained popularity, vastly improving efficiency in the clothing and fabric industries. As such it played a key role in the industrialisation of the manufacturing sector.

By the early 20th century, the household sewing machine was a common appliance in almost every home. Most families had one in the house – used to sew new clothes, do alterations, or to mend worn or damaged clothes. This golden era of home sewing lasted almost a century, but with the proliferation of mass produced, super cheap clothes from giant producers like China, the trusty home sewing machine seems to be facing extinction.

Scientific sewing? Even a basic sewing machine offers many more creative opportunities than just shortening a pair of pants.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So, with today being Sewing Machine Day, perhaps it is high time to dig out the old sewing machine, give it a good dusting and reacquaint yourself with the possibilities it offers. Or if you don’t have one, check out the secondhand stores or online auction sites – perfectly functional machines are going for a song.

Not only is home-sewing an excellent outlet for your inner Chanel or Versace – it is also a positive step towards green living.  Sure, it may be quicker and easier to go out an buy a new $5 t-shirt, $30 jacket or a pair of $20 jeans, but Mother Nature will be so much better off if you rather patch up the elbows and cuffs on your old jacket, mend those torn jeans, and wear them for a while longer.  The environmental impact of a few minutes of home sewing is negligible compared to the impact of creating a new garment in some industrial sweat-shop.

Like 150 years ago, when the sewing machine became a key player in the industrial revolution, it now has the potential to become a surprise hit in the green revolution.