Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Almost anyone who has donned a jacket in the past century, or desired to detachably connect a pair of adjacent flexible parts has no doubt at some point been presented with the rare, lamentable experience of grappling with a defective zipper. And by 'defective', I mean either the slider or the pull-tab has gone wonky, or—and though the following issue thoroughly cripples the zipper's functionality, it remains significantly less frustrating to putz with (due to the lack of putzing involved)—the zipper or some component of its mechanism has departed entirely, absconding along with all of the relevance and supposed practical value that accompanies the addition of metal tangs to objects that need fastening.

These experiences unequivocally fall into the category of problems that are: too banal to moan about to any but the most sympathetic diary, too mildly inconvenient to allot any more than a few fumbling, tinkering seconds to the discovery of possible solutions, and certainly too trivial to discuss at any length. And yet my most recent struggle with a zipper has left me thrilled, humbled, and I suspect that with any luck, more cognizant and more inquiring of the minute, mechanical reality that slips and slides imperceptibly beneath our fingertips.

As I was rushing out the door the other day to meet up with a partner in the library, I was presented with the familiar circumstances that accompany a chronically tardy failure-to-leave-on-timer such as myself. They are comprised chiefly of sudden unexpected occurrences i.e. urinary urgencies, misplaced shoes, or, as in this particular case, the disheartening realization that my zipper was short one pull-tab. Looking quickly at my phone's presumably amused clock, and choosing to obey the time, I pinched the slider between my thumb and forefinger, accidentally pinched my thumb in the zipper itself, and hurried out the door with a demoralized and dissatisfied zip.

At this point, I feel I should apologize if this story contains none of the harbingers of an inspiring or engaging piece that probes the psychology of creativity. But I would like to take this time to assure any bemused or uncertain readers, that this narrative will, in fact, deliver. After a fashion. But to expedite the process we will overlook my sojourn across campus, arriving directly at the midpoint of my meeting and in the midst of the tension that stems from sharing a small space with an adult of the opposite gender whose attractiveness is painfully manifested in the noticeable reduction of your conversational skills.

This meeting was presumably to be brief. And it was. But it had extended just past the point where coat and hat and scarf are comfortable to continue wearing in the toasty climate of wintertime libraries. My first movement was to my coat's zipper. It would not budge in the slightest.

Unzipping a working zipper is perhaps the single most fluid interaction between man and machine. Unzipping a defective zipper ranks slightly above attempting to grate cheese with a broken cheese grater in terms of absurdity and ineffectiveness.

After several unsuccessful (although reasonably covert) attempts to pull down on the slider, wrench open my coat, or force the slider down with my finger and then a pen, I silently concluded that I simply needed more leverage. So I proceeded to sweat out the final moments of the meeting and promptly attached a paperclip in place of a pull-tab upon my return home.

When I tugged on the bottom of the paperclip though, the slider descended my coat with such startling grace it seemed as if the weight of my hand had pulled it down effortlessly. It was clearly more than a faulty angle that had led to the creation of an impromptu straitjacket in the library, and when I zipped up to try again, trying not to get the zipper to descend with my hand when I gripped the paperclip was like trying to rest a steak knife on top of warm butter. And yet the instant I let go of it, the instant I pressed down on the top of the slider or pulled apart both sides of my coat, the zipper hung stuck like it had rusted shut.

Upon further examination, I noticed that on top of the slider, hidden directly below the arched eyelet through which I had threaded my paperclip, was a tiny incline. And when I pulled down on my paperclip it rode up the incline no more than one or two millimeters. But as it raised ever so slightly it lifted the bottom of the apparently ever-so-delicately hinged eyelet, just enough to unhook it from where it had been impalpably resting between and effectively locking in place the two sides of the zipper's chain.

The implications of this realization, are, of course, hardly monumental. And perhaps the zipper, and more specifically, this unnoticed, anonymous locking mechanism, pale a bit in comparison to the astounding creative achievements available for rumination on this fine blog. But the zipper is as extraordinarily pervasive as it is unheralded.

It performs a simple task, a task which could almost always be reduced to and carried out effectively by: buttons, snaps, buckles, and their ilk. Yet it performs with a beauty that is entitled to nothing short of that term: 'perform.' It is an intricate, ingenious mechanism that performs a single, flowing motion with such precision that its dance down or up or across its separate yet concordant chains goes overlooked. What more novelty than unseen beauty? What more creativity than the unique intuition that creates invisible ubiquity?

The story behind the zipper's creation is equally little known, although a reasonable amount information exists about its creator, Whitcomb L. Judson (also a cultivator of fine facial hair). He was a traveling agricultural salesman who worked for Pitts Agricultural Work. He received 30 different patents for various inventions ranging from the hurriedly-discarded, now-forgotten "pneumatic street railway" system to the used-everywhere, now-forgotten "clasp-locker," later termed the "zipper." The primary impetus Judson cited was the need for a faster method of fastening large boots, relieving the tedium of many buttons. He first exhibited his invention at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and he proceeded to make small modifications and improvements as time went on but flaws and breakdowns in the "clasp-locker" occurred frequently, and Judson remained ultimately bereft of recognition or commercial success. Even the patent office was initially uncertain of his invention's 'novelty' and suggested that there were a variety of other simpler methods of fastening. He convinced them with a second, improved patent application that he sent in before the first one had been decided on.

A patent for the early "clasp-locker". Here, the design is shown to fasten a shoe.

The zipper was modernized and streamlined by several designers in the 1920's, mainly through the work of Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American electrical engineer. The creative process that brought about the zipper was one born out of necessity, and collaborated on across decades by minds that encountered each other only in the binding of their mechanical creation. But the story of the lock I inadvertently discovered and have now noticed elsewhere remains, as yet, a mystery.

It takes an almost occult anticipation to become aware of an annoyance so simple, so basic and unnoticed, that we feel more than think about the frustration, like the magnetic charging cord on a MacBook. It takes an incredible creativity to design an invisible lock on zipper, something that fixes a previously unknown annoyance before and sometimes even without making the user aware of it.

Neither the zipper nor its subtle lock can quite be said to awe observers, nor is their existence particularly extraordinary. But they serve as a reminder of the gentle beauty that pervades the most obvious mechanics of our environment. They inspire flow and simplicity and awareness.

The surprisingly simple technical language for zipper components can be found on Wikipedia.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.