My usual response is a
very polite, "Who cares?" OK, that's not really a very polite
response. But, really, who cares who invented this simple item,
which is found in nearly every office in the world? For that matter,
it is found in nearly every home as well.
I decided to find out firsthand who invented this product and to
see if there was an interesting history behind it. Turns out, there
Johann Valer was the inventor. He was born in Aurskog, Norway, in
1866. If you don't know where that is, you're not alone. Norway is
near Sweden and Finland. Valer was a Norwegian Jew; in fact, his
invention became a symbol of unity during World War II.
What did he invent that so many people are asking me about? What
was this little device -- consisting of nothing but bent wire?
The paper clip!
Johann Valer invented it in 1901.
The Norwegian Jews in World War II were not allowed to display
any kind of symbol of their king -- not even his initials. Since the
paper clip was invented by a Norwegian, it served as a way for the
Norwegian people to protest the Nazi invasion, and it became their
symbol of solidarity. They wore the paper clips on their lapels.
Being caught wearing one could result in being arrested, deported or
When the eighth-grade class at Whitwell Middle School in
Whitwell, Tenn., learned this, they began collecting paper clips in
2001 to honor the Jews who were victims of the Holocaust. Their goal
was to collect 6 million paper clips, one for each person who died
in the Holocaust. After word spread of their efforts, they ended up
with more than 20 million paper clips!
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That was enough to fill a cattle car, which is exactly what they did. They
purchased a cattle car that had been used to transport Jews to German
death camps. It stands on the school grounds to this day as a reminder
of what happened, and it is lined with plexiglass so that the clips are
visible from the outside.
The Paper Clip Project, as it became known, allowed Whitwell
Middle School's students to also meet several Jewish Holocaust
survivors who visited the school.
Despite Johann Valer's paper clip invention being used all over
the world, he never made much money from his invention. His design
was so simple that copycat companies would just design around his
patent, which is legal. As a result, he never earned the royalties
that could have been his.
There were several other inventors working on their own version
of the paper clip around the same time that Johann Valer invented
his version, so there is some dispute as to who actually invented
the paper clip. Yet because Valer's basic version is the one that is
used all over the world today, he is known as the inventor of the
Now that we've resolved this issue, if you see me on the streets,
feel free to ask me about any of your favorite inventions.
As long as it's not the paper clip.
Paul Niemann may be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2006