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The Origins of Indispensable Office Supplies

Everyone has their favorite desk essentials, some of which have even amassed a cult following. It may surprise you when you learn about their origins―the simple paper clip is relatively new, and the ballpoint pen took almost 50 years to develop properly.
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Invention of the Gem paper clip
A Noteworthy Note
Post-it notes turned 20 in the year 2000, and the occasion was celebrated by artists creating artworks on them. One of these designs fetched around USD 1030 in an auction, making it the most expensive Post-it.
When you’re working, the last thing you think about is your office supplies―until you run out and need more. That frustration and desperation as you search the corners of your drawers for just one more paper clip―what would we do without our beloved desk essentials?

Sure, gadgets come and go, and even Wite-Out is pretty much extinct in the age of computers, but the basics endure. Have you ever thought about how they came to be? This Buzzle article, therefore, embarks upon a quest to uncover the origins of our oft-ignored, though highly essential office supplies.

Paper Clips
The paper clip is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. But how do you suppose people attached papers together before they existed? With such a simple design, that's a small piece of bent wire, one would assume that paper clips have been around for ages, but that’s not the case. The first paper clip was invented in 1867, and was intended to hold tickets to fabric. It wasn’t exactly the device we know today―that was created by The Gem Manufacturing Company in the mid-1870s, and was never patented, which is almost unbelievable, given the fact that the design has basically remained unchanged all this time. The 'Gem paper clip' (its proper name) was immediately a commercial success, primarily because it didn’t mark or tear the pages like its predecessor, the pin.

Ballpoint Pens
The first ballpoint pen was invented by leather tanner John J. Loud in 1888, as he was seeking an alternative to fountain pens for marking leather. Although he was issued a patent for his invention, early ballpoints were plagued with issues. A successful pen required the ball and point to fit perfectly, along with ink of the perfect consistency flowing freely without flooding. The ball and point problems were solved with various updates to the design. Take apart your pen and you’ll see the spring loading to hold the ball in place, and the thin reservoir that uses capillary action to dispense the ink. But arguably, the most important advance in pens came in 1938, when newspaper editor Laszlo Biro and his chemist brother Gyorgy developed a new, thick ink that wouldn’t flood the page, and a new ball-and-socket design that would plug up the reservoir to prevent the ink from drying, while ensuring even dispensing every time.

Scotch Tape
There’s a reason 3M is the most common Scotch tape brand―they invented it. Or rather, Richard Drew invented it on their behalf in 1923. He was trying to develop better masking tape for auto painters, and ended up with a strong adhesive on a cellophane backing. Although it never took off in the automotive world, Scotch tape became popular among butchers, bakers, and other food purveyors, because the adhesive wasn’t prone to releasing with heat or moisture, like previous tapes. Heat-sealing came along soon after and replaced Scotch tape among this particular market, but by then, it was already a household hit among the Great Depression families because it allowed for easy, quick repairs. And the plastic handheld dispenser that you don’t even notice anymore? It hit the market in 1940, nearly replacing the seven-pound cast iron desk dispenser that preceded it.

Post-its
One of the best features of Post-it is the light adhesive that can stick to nearly anything while remaining fully removable without damaging the surface. Ironically, this adhesive was invented by Dr. Spencer Silver (3M) in 1968, as he was attempting to invent a 'super-strong' adhesive. If he failed in his mission, he certainly succeeded in creating an icon. Success wasn’t immediate, he had difficulty promoting the product within 3M, and multiple product releases couldn’t seem to find a market. Customers couldn’t understand the purpose. So in 1978, 3M gave out free samples in Boise, Idaho, and the market was found at last. Once they tried them, customers couldn’t get enough―in fact, 94% of those who received the free samples said they would definitely purchase them. Post-its were officially launched in 1980, and the rest is history.
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Published: October 19, 2013
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