Whitcomb Judson was an ordinary American who devised an extraordinary new way to “connect” the world.
He called it the clasp-locker.
We call it the zipper.
The word “zipper” entered the language only after the inventor’s death — thanks to an incredible assist from American tire titan Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Goodrich.
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The zipper is one of the world’s most common and most convenient devices, used by billions of people daily in homes, commerce and industry.
Zippers are affixed to discount jeans and $35,000 Hermes designer handbags.
Schoolhouses and factories, pleasure boats and warships, all rely on zippers.
They have proven their importance beyond the limits of Earth. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped into their moon suits through zippered openings before they stepped onto the lunar surface.
Judson merely wanted a way to clasp-lock — or, rather, zip — boots to make it easy to get in and out of them.
“He’s about as uninteresting on the face of things as anybody you can imagine,” University of Maryland professor emeritus and zipper historian Robert Friedel told Fox News Digital.
Friedel wrote a history of the innovation, “Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty,” in 1994.
Judson lived a rather ordinary existence, the professor said. He spent much of his life as a traveling salesman.
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He was, however, imbued with an internal drive to improve the known world that spirited countless Americans and fueled the national zeitgeist in the late 19th century.
Judson, more selfishly, was driven by a desire to fasten his name to history.
Everyday Americans such as Judson, armed with limited academic backgrounds but bold visions, looked at old ways of doing things and reimagined the world in the half-century or so after the Civil War.
“If you were an ambitious young American in the late 1800s who wanted to make a name for yourself, it was clear that invention was the way do it,” said Friedel.
“Everybody wanted to be Edison or Bell. Judson clearly caught that fever. He was very much eager to be remembered as an inventor.”
Whitcomb L. Judson was born on March 7, 1846 either in Chicago or Antwerp, New York, according to various records. He was raised in Chicago.
The defining experience of his youth most certainly came during the Civil War. Judson was just 17 years old when he joined the 42nd Illinois Infantry Regiment on Jan. 1, 1864.
He was wounded at the Second Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, on Nov. 30, 1864, according to a database of Illinois veterans.
It was a brutal and ugly battle, yet it helped hasten the end of the war.
“The scale of the Confederate charge at Franklin rivaled that of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg,” writes the American Battlefield Trust.
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“The devastating defeat of Gen. John Bell Hood’s Confederate troops in an ill-fated charge at Franklin resulted in the loss of more than 6,000 Confederates, along with six generals and many other top commanders.”
Judson returned to a dutiful civilian life, working as a salesman in agriculture. He also pursued dreams of innovation.
He proved his inventive spirit in the area of public transportation, launching the Judson Pneumatic Street Railway Co. He secured numerous patents in the sector. Washington, D.C., tested a mile of his pneumatic rail in 1890.
The technology did not travel far. Pneumatic rail was supplanted by electric trains. Judson’s chance to be a public transportation pioneer fizzled by banking on the wrong technology.
He next devoted his energies to building a better boot.
Judson filed an application for what he called the “clasp-locker” in 1893.
“The invention was especially designed for use as a shoe-fastener; but is capable of general application wherever clasps consisting of interlocking parts may be applied, as for example, to mail bags, belts, and the closing of seams uniting flexible bodies,” Judson wrote in his 1893 patent application.
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He offered in his application the world’s first description of what we now recognize as the zipper.
“My invention relates to clasp lockers or unlockers for automatically engaging or disengaging an entire series of clasps by a single continuous movement.”
Judson showcased his clasp-locker at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. He founded Universal Fastener Co. with partners Harry L. Earle and Lewis Walker.
The business struggled, despite the opportunity and investment.
Swedish-American engineer Gideon Sundbach made improvements to Judson’s design. It caught the attention of the American military.
“The U.S. Army applied zippers to the clothing and gear of the troops in World War I,” claims the website of Lemelson-MIT, an inventors’ think tank at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The public still wasn’t impressed. The product worked fine. But the clasp-locker needed something more. It needed pizzazz. It needed buzz.
It found a cool new image from an unlikely source.
B.F. Goodrich is best known for the tires that bear his name. But he sold a variety of other consumer products a century ago, including rain boots.
His company affixed the clasp-locker to boots in 1923 and dubbed them zipps and zippers — an onomatopoeia for the sound the clasp made as it, well, zipped to close.
Judson’s uninspiring clasp-locker proved a sensation as the zipper.
“By the late 1920s, zippers could be found in all kinds of clothing, footwear and carrying cases,” writes Lemelson-MIT. “By the mid-1930s, zippers had even been embraced by the fashion industry.“
“The upswing for the zipper came in 1937 when the zipper beat the button in the ‘Battle of the Fly,'” Ninette Dean wrote for Smithsonian Library and Archives in 2010.
French fashion designers “began to rave” over the ease, utility and seamlessness of the innovation.
Adds Dean: “Esquire magazine [in 1937] declared the zipper the ‘Newest Tailoring Idea for Men’ and of zipper’s many virtues it would exclude the ‘possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray.’”
Embraced by everyone from Uncle Sam to the Paris fashion designers, Judson’s clasp-locker took over the world by another name.
“The story of the zipper is a great example that a great name can help a make a product successful,” Fritz Grutzner of Madison, Wisconsin, president and founder of Brandgarten, told Fox News Digital.
The name zipper, he said, instantly connected with something in the human brain.
Trademark lawyers, he said, call it a fanciful name.
Amazon, Google and Yahoo are all modern examples of successful fanciful names in the digital era. The name has little relation to the product, but it grabs our attention.
Inventors naturally gravitate to what intellectual property experts call descriptive names to explain their vision. They’re often ponderous and forgettable. Judson’s clasp-locker was one of those descriptive names. The public craved something more.
Zipper was genius: It was “memorable, evocative and simple,” said Grutzner.
Whitcomb Judson died on Dec. 7, 1909 in Muskegon, Michigan. He’s buried there today in Oakwood Cemetery.
He died amid relative anonymity. He certainly died without achieving the immortality that zipper historian Friedel believes Judson was seeking and that many people seek.
His Judson Universal Fastener Co. eventually became Talon Co. It was the largest zipper maker in the world for decades.
It still claims on its website to have invented the zipper.
“The zipper … began with inventor Whitcomb L. Judson in Chicago in 1893,” writes the Hagen History Center of Erie, Pennsylvania, near where Talon made zippers for decades.
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“Judson’s patent bears little resemblance to the zipper we know today, but it would start a chain of events that would change the way we live today.”
Talon still exists. But its zippers are now made overseas.
Judson most likely died with the belief that his clasp-locker suffered the same fate as his innovations in pneumatic rail travel. It failed.
His zipper, however, surpassed his name or his simple desire to build a better boot.
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The zipper is so common now that most people use zippers several times each day without taking notice.
One industry estimate is that 5.5 billon zippers are produced every year — or about two zippers for every three people on the planet.
“Sometimes, oftentimes, an inventor will come up with something that’s just a little ahead of its time, or that’s not yet perfected,” said Grutzner, the brand naming expert.
“The zipper was one of those products. I imagine the first zippers functioned OK, but not great. It’s often the third or fourth iteration of something that really connects with consumers.”
Judson’s vision achieved something he coveted but never experienced in life — a kind of immortality.
“People say that necessity is the mother of invention,” said Friedel, the zipper historian. “But that’s not true. Judson is a wonderful example of how false it is.”
The zipper was not necessary. The world was fine without it, he noted. Judson was motivated instead to leave behind a legacy on Earth.
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“Judson and the zipper provide a window into the real mother of invention,” said Friedel. “It’s the desire to be remembered.”
To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here.