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.