Fur, flies and zip codes

April 7, 1995

This is first and foremost a history book, but it is more than that. Certainly it is a proper technical history of the invention and development of the zip fastener. But it could also be described as a "social history" of the device, in so far as inanimate objects can have one.

The development of the zip typifies the difficulties and frustrations of inventing: the dependence on finance, the presence of the right personalities at the right time, luck and other factors that are responsible for the success or failure of "good ideas". As the book's dust cover tells us: "There are many reasons why the zipper should have failed."

The narrative makes clear that it was not simply the genius of one man that made the zip a success. The zip started with a potential application to, of all unlikely things, pneumatic railways, which were themselves never successful. This is not a story of hard, technological fact - of a sudden flash of "Eureka"-style genius. It is about individuals and personalities; it is about industry and industrial attitudes during that important period of technological development between 1890 and 1940; it is about companies and commerce, investment and ingenuity, all intertwined to make the zip's evolution almost as complex and unlikely as that of homo sapiens.

One feels that even if the story had not been so, the author would have made it so. For Robert Friedel goes into the furthermost corners of the lives and thoughts of all who had even the smallest part in the story of the development of the zip. He writes: "It involves a cast of characters that includes the archetypal oddball inventor, the smooth small-town lawyer, the fast-talking door-to-door salesman, the immigrant engineer, the rube in the big city, and so forth. We are all attracted to good tales and the zipper's story is a dandy."

This is most certainly a scholarly work. The author has done an enormous amount of research to compile such a collection of facts; and perhaps this will stand in the way of the book's being a popular book. The reader can easily tire of reading in seemingly endless detail about the characters and their interrelationships, about other contemporary inventors and their inventions, about the interplay between sociology and technology. But if this can be boring it is not because it is not readable, simply that there is so much of it. The author has been so carried away by his fascination for the whole story that he felt he could leave nothing out. Yet the strange thing is that when the reader finds himself asking: "Is there any part of the page that I have just read that I can justifiably say is irrelevant to the story?" - his answer will almost certainly be no. Furthermore, anyone desiring a quick precis of the story need do no more than flick through the illustrations. These are carefully chosen, are very interesting and have ample captions.

There are also some funny stories. The penultimate chapter, appropriately entitled "Allegations of Ecstasy" includes a story about a gentleman on a bus who discovered his fly zip was open and, as he went to do it up, the bus lurched so that the end of the fur worn by the lady sitting next to him became entangled. Alas, at the next stop she had to get down, and the gentleman was obliged to get down with her, still attached.

Although the zip is essentially American in invention and development and the book is written by an American, Zipper fairly and properly deals with the zip's evolution and dispersion throughout the industrial world. It is indeed a true history book, with the undoubted message, to me, that human individuals are greater than the machines they invent.

Whether the story was worth quite so many words is doubtful. I was glad when I finished reading Zipper, but also glad that I had read it.

Eric Laithwaite is an inventor, emeritus professor, Imperial College, London, and a visiting professor, University of Sussex.

Zipper:: An Exploration in Novelty

Author - Robert Friedel
ISBN - 0 393 03599 9
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £18.50
Pages - 288pp

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