It was invented in 1899. It hasn’t been improved upon since.
The paper clip is something of a fetish object in design circles. Its spare, machined aesthetic and its inexpensive ubiquity landed it a spot in MoMA’s 2004 show Humble Masterpieces. This was a pedestal too high for design critic Michael Bierut, who responded with an essay called “To Hell with the Simple Paper Clip.” He argued that designers praise supposedly unauthored objects like the paper clip because they’re loath to choose between giving publicity to a competitor and egotistically touting their own designs. Bierut might be right about his colleagues’ motives, but he’s wrong about the paper clip: It’s not all that simple.
Most everyday objects—like the key, or the book, or the phone—evolve over time in incremental ways, and the 20th century in particular revolutionized, streamlined, or technologized the vast majority of the things you hold in your hand over the course of an average day. But if you could step into an office in 1895—walking past horse-drawn buses and rows of wooden telephone switchboard cabinets—you might find a perfectly recognizable, shiny silver paper clip sitting on a desk. What was then a brand-new technology is now, well over a century later, likely to be in the same place, ready to perform the same tasks. Why did the paper clip find its form so quickly, and why has it stuck with us for so long?