The development of the zipper into a reliable device took several decades. The U.S. Patent Office approved several early designs that only vaguely resembled today’s zipper.
Elias Howe, Jr. was the first inventor to design a zipper-like device in response to the more time consuming fasteners used for clothing and shoes. His “Fastening for Garments,” patented in 1851, was described as an “automatic, continuous clothing closure” . However, his invention had many issues that needed to be addressed. Howe was not interested in continuing work with the fastener due to his focus on another of his inventions, the sewing machine . The design was not developed, and it was nearly fifty years before another inventor made an attempt at a new fastening device.
The first patent to use a slide device, which enabled the fasteners to be brought together in a semiautomatic way, belonged to Whitcomb Judson. While Judson’s design used recognizable fastening devices like clasps and hooks, the addition of a slide proved to be innovative. Judson was said to be a portly man who tired of bending over to lace up or button his shoes . Finding issues with current technology, he designed his own fastener, referred to as a “Clasp Locker or Unlocker for Shoes,” in 1891 . He continued to think of improvements, and actually filed for another patent, simply called “Shoe Fastening,” before the first one had been completed . His original design would have required a change in shoe manufacturing, but the later design had the ability to fit into existing shoes. Both devices were patented on the same day in 1893.
With support from an old associate, Harry L. Earle, and with financial backing from a Pennsylvania lawyer, Colonel Lewis A. Walker, Judson formed the Universal Fastener Company in Hoboken, New Jersey to take advantage of the patents. While he continued to make improvements, Judson’s early fasteners did not sell well. They had a tendency to pop open and tear the fabric, and the selling price was exceedingly high in order to match labor costs. In 1902, Judson patented a “Chain Making Machine” to speed up the process of making the fastener . Nevertheless, the product and the machine remained unreliable. Finally, in 1904 he created a design using hooks and eyes connected to a fabric tape, which could then be attached to shoes and garments. Judson’s new design made the first commercial introduction of the fastener possible .
Meanwhile, the Universal Fastener Company had morphed into the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company. That company morphed into the Automatic Hook and Eye Company, located in Meadville, Pennsylvania, which was created to sell Judson’s new device. The new device was called the C-curity fastener, which went to market in 1905. C-curity was mostly marketed towards women, and as the name suggests, the device was meant to be more reliable. Unfortunately, C-curity was not the trustworthy device that its advertisements suggested. It gained a reputation for creating extremely embarrassing situations, popping open easily while the glider caught in place, making it impossible to close back up . The item was mostly unsuccessful.
As concerns grew over Judson’s soon-to-expire patents and the work of other inventors patenting similar devices, Gideon Sundback, a Swedish design engineer, came to work for the Automatic Hook and Eye Company. He came to America in 1905 and started working for the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company for a year until he joined Automatic Hook and Eye . Sundback began by modifying Judson’s design, making the hook-and-eye connection more secure. He introduced the Plako in 1909 and marketed it towards dressmakers and for men’s trousers, where it enjoyed some success. However, the Plako also proved to be unreliable, not being flexible enough to stay closed when bent or twisted.
Sundback continued to work on improving the device. In 1912 he filed for a patent (later amended in 1917), removing the hook-and-eye system. The “hookless fastener,” later referred to as Hookless No. 1, used a slide to force one side of the fastener, made of cloth tape, into metal clamps on the other side . However, the wear on the fabric tape proved to be too much, and the fastener could only be used a few times. Nevertheless, the company reorganized into the Hookless Fastener Company. In 1913 Sundback designed the Hookless No. 2, a radical departure from previous designs . With Hookless No. 2, Sundback introduced the interlocking system used in the modern zipper. He changed the fasteners from hooks and eyes to small interlocking scoops. These scoops fit together tightly when joined by the slide and were easily released when separated by it .
After years of design, redesign, and development, there was finally a reliable product. However, before the slide fastener would become an integral part of daily life, there were years of marketing ahead of it.
The following How It’s Made episode describes current manufacturing of the zipper. The section on the zipper starts at 0:43 seconds. Note that the narrator incorrectly refers to Gideon Sundback as Canadian.
See sources here.