Did Google Screw Up With Its Zipper Doodle?

Who really invented the zipper? The world’s foremost zipper expert weighs in.

If you haven’t already, go to Google. Today’s “Doodle” is a full-screen interactive zipper honoring Gideon Sundback, the guy whose 1914 patent for a “Hookless No. 2” fastener gave birth to the modern zipper. But, as with any important new tech, there wasn’t just one guy, or one breakthrough. The zipper, at the point, had been in development for decades. The LA Times even went with this blaring headline:

So wait, did Google really credit the wrong guy here? Let’s check with HISTORY.

The first person who has an claim to the invention of the zipper was probably Elias Howe, whose 1851 patent described “new and useful improvements in fastening for garments.” Howe’s zipper is a series of cleats bound together by string, which expand to zip and retract to unzip. It doesn’t work quite like a zipper, but it sure looks like one:

Howe, who helped refine the concept for the sewing machine, never followed through on his designs, which probably wouldn’t have worked too well anyway. But still! Howe’s ghost’s Google Doodle jealousy rating: Mild.

Whitcomb L. Judson has a stronger case. This guy’s zipper worked more or less like a modern zipper in theory, but never broke through, despite Judson’s best efforts, most likely on account of not working very well — Judsons designs first relied on hooks and holes, then on overly complicated clasp mechanisms:

Sundback’s zipper was an important refinement — more teeth and a working mechanism — of Judson’s design, and the one that took the zipper mainstream.

Judson’s Google Doodle jealousy rating: Fairly intense.

I asked Robert Friedel, a history professor at the University of Maryland and author of Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty, who he thinks is most Doodle-worthy. He sided with Google:

Gideon Sundback is definitely our main man for the zipper. Howe’s efforts were little more than a drawstring (look at the patent!) and he seems to be mentioned only because he’s famous for other reasons. Judson’s more important, but he was a terrible mechanic, as far as I can make out. Sundback was a true engineer…and an incredibly clever one. And he tackled the perfection of the zipper largely to impress his sweetheart — who can resist a story like that!

I love the Doodle!

Sorry, OG zipbros. When it comes to history, followthrough is everything.

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