Improvisor's Toolbox: Paperclips

Everything in the 21st century office would seem alien to H. G. Wells’s Victorian-era time traveller – except for the paper clip. Invented in the 1870s, the loop within a loop design of this handy little office item hasn’t been improved since. William Middlebrook patented the design for the machinery to create paper clips in 1899 and sold it to Cushman & Denison. The American office supply manufacturer registered a trademark for the Gem name in connection with paper clips in 1904. Paper clips are still sometimes referred to as Gem clips, and the Swedish word for a paper clip is gem. While Norwegian Johan Vaaler is often credited as the inventor of the paper clip, his design was different and never mass-produced.

Before the paper clip came along, the straight pin was the paper fastener of choice. While it was cheap and easy to use, it left rust stains and holes in the paper. In the mid-1800s, the mass production of low-cost steel that had the right balance of strength and malleability helped dislodge the straight pin in favour of more flexible alternatives like the looped paper clip.

There were several other clip shapes that were developed close to the beginning of the 19th century. The Fay clip is often credited as the earliest patented design in 1867, followed by the Wright clip patented in 1877, and the Niagara clip a couple of decades later. Some of these clips used less wire, while others could secure larger stacks of paper. However the Gem clip won, not only because of its elegant design, but also because its production was easy to automate. All it took was three bends and a snip. There were no sharp edges and the paper clip was supple enough to snug papers between the loops and then hold them together.

Over the years the paper clip has been twisted, pulled apart, and used as a tool for everything from ejecting optical drives to inserting SIM cards and even to pick locks. Kyle MacDonald famously traded a red one for a house. The humble paper clip was even used as a symbol of resistance by the Norwegians during the Second World War against the Nazi occupation that forbade people from wearing badges or pins depicting national symbols. In a spiritual continuation of that tradition, the paper clip has perhaps been immortalised as a symbol for the digital era in the form of the universal attachment icon.

Paperclip Trebuchet

Project Maker: Alex Palfreman-Brown

Paperclip Trebuchet

Alex Palfreman-Brown has the perfect cure for cubicle boredom. All you need is a handful of paper clips and a pair of pliers. You can use them, together with some other pieces of office stationery, to build a trebuchet that’s powerful enough to hurl balls of Blu-Tack across the cubicles and wage a war on your colleagues.

Alex shows you how to first straighten the paper clips and then intricately shape them into the swinging arm, the axle, the trigger, and other components of the trebuchet. You then assemble all of them on a piece of corrugated card, together with ballast (Alex uses a bunch of batteries), roll pea-sized drops of Blu-Tack into balls along with some string, and fire away. The whole contraption takes about an hour to put together.

The build is so popular that it has earned Alex several Pro memberships, which he gives away as competition prizes in the hackspace he helps run. The evil mastermind is fully aware of the sinister implications of his war machine: “If I’m ever feeling glum, I just consider how many man-hours have been lost internationally to bored office workers building my trebuchet. That always puts a smile on my face.”

Paperclip Sculptures

Project Maker: Thomasin Durgin

Paperclip sculpture

Thomasin Durgin is a teaching artist in Memphis, Tennessee and fabricates jewellery using all kinds of metals. Almost a decade ago she found herself in a cubicle in a job that was “not a good fit” for her. So she started creating art from the materials readily available in her workspace – paper clips.

To make these sculptures, Thomasin adopted the traditional basket weaving techniques to work with paper clips. She outlined the shape and then drilled holes into a wooden base and glued several 12-inch-high heavy-gauge wires into them. She then threaded two of these wires into each paper clip, sliding them down and staggering them into rows. This particular sculpture took over 2000 paper clips. Commenting on a photo of her sculpture, Thomasin writes that the process is rather limiting: “I’d like to adapt true basketry techniques to be able to ditch the wood and create more rounded vessels, spheres, etc. Then I can combine both methods to make more complex structures.”

Miniature Weapons

Project Maker: Brett

Paperclip weapons

Paperclips are a wonderful medium to express yourself creatively. Their malleable nature allows them to be bent into all kinds of shapes that can be held over a period of time thanks to their sturdiness. Armed with a pair of needle-nose pliers and some glue, Brett took some paper clips and transformed them into beautiful miniature weapons.

Brett hasn’t published the procedure for sculpting the paper clip armoury, but you can reverse-engineer his process thanks to the excellent macro photographs of the creations by Brett’s friend, Dan Nicholas. Dan’s images of Brett’s awe-inspiring work are detailed enough to help you make out each and every bend, turn, and twist of the paper clips. If you’re like us, all it’ll take is one look at Brett’s rudimentary weapons and you’ll be instantly compelled to try your hand at creating them.

Metal Race Game

Project Maker:

Paperclip race-track

A talk on the rise of mobile gaming back in 2009 inspired game designer Greg Borenstein to build a physical one-dimensional scrolling game based on a racing game he played on the TI-83 series of graphing calculators. In his version, the player’s car essentially stays in place while the track scrolls from right to left at a constant rate. The player can move the car up and down to navigate the twists and turns of the circuit.

Greg used a couple of motors to move the car and the track that was made out of paper clips. A triangular piece of metal serves as the car and when it comes into contact with the paper clip circuit, they close a switch that triggers a buzzer indicating a crash and the end of the game. Greg has detailed the mechanical and electrical parts of the build in a couple of blog posts and also published a video of the whole contraption in action.

Paperclip Jewellery

Project Maker: Lina Darnell

Paperclip necklace

Lina is a master crafter and a mum of two young kids. Inspired by a blog post on another website, Lina engages her kids creatively by using a bunch of paper clips and some duct tape to design some simple pieces of jewellery. She hooks paper clips together to the desired length of the necklace or bracelet and then wraps about an inch of tape around the middle of each clip.

While it sounds simple, the end result is an attractive trinket. Lina’s post is dotted with images and she also discusses ideas to extend the simple designs by adding more paper clips and dangling beads and small pendants to the end. “This is a great craft for summer camps, scouts, or simply an afternoon at home,” writes Lina, whose kids love the paper clip jewellery.

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