Zippers are devices for fastening clothing. A zipper consists of two tracks of teeth or coils, made of metal or synthetic plastic materials, which are connected to a pull-piece that either locks or separates the tracks.
The "automatic continuous clothing closure," an early form of a zipper, was patented in 1851 by American inventor Elias Howe (1819–1867), who also invented the sewing machine. Howe never marketed his form of the zipper. More than forty years later Chicago-based engineer Whitcomb L. Judson (c. 1846–1909) designed and patented another early form of a zipper, a series of hooks and eyes, or holes, that came together mechanically. Judson's fastener was used in closing mail pouches, tobacco sacks, and men's boots. Legend has it that Judson invented this "clasp locker" because he was a heavy man who had difficulty bending over to fasten the individual buttons or clasps on his own boots. With American businessman Colonel Lewis Walker (1855–1938), Judson marketed his invention through the Universal Fastener Company of Chicago, Illinois, and called it the "Judson C-curity Fastener." Their product was displayed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair but did not succeed commercially. The Judson invention failed to sell because it jammed easily and came undone accidentally. It also had to be removed from a garment before washing because it rusted when wet. The fastener was so complicated to use that it even came with an instruction booklet.
Early in the twentieth century Gideon Sundback (1880–1954), a Swedish immigrant to the United States who was an electrical engineer, was hired by the Universal Fastener Company. His job as head designer was to improve the Judson invention in order to make it more marketable. By the end of 1913 Sundback had invented the modern zipper. It was made up of two rows of teeth that came together with a single slider. Sundback also designed a machine to manufacture his fasteners. During World War I (1914–18) the United States government purchased the Sundback fasteners for use on items ranging from large pouches to military uniform trousers to aviator, or pilot, clothing. After the war the fasteners were used on raincoats, overalls, swimming trunks, and tennis racquet covers. In 1923 the B. F. Goodrich Company of Akron, Ohio, bought the Sundback invention for use on its line of rubber boots. They named their product "the Zipper Boot" after the sound the slider made as it skated along the metal tracks. The name stuck, and zippers became one of the most common clothing fasteners of modern times.
Friedel, Robert. Zipper: An Exploration of Novelty. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.
Walker, Lewis. The Lengthened Shadow of a Man. New York: Newcomen Society of North America, 1955.