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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Simple invention annoys your humble scribe nearly every day          By Paul Niemann

[AUG. 10, 2006]  There is one invention that people ask me about all the time. "Who invented it?" they ask.

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 is.

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 even executed.

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 paper clip.

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]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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