Whitcomb Judson

The Zipper
Consumer Devices

Most of the fastening devices used in clothing today, like the shoelace, the button, and the safety pin, have existed in some form in various cultures for thousands of years. But the zipper was the brainchild of one American inventor, namely, Whitcomb Judson of Chicago.

At the end of the 19th century, Judson was already a successful inventor with a dozen patents to his credit for mechanical items, such as improvements to motors and railroad braking systems. He then turned his attention to creating a replacement for the lengthy shoelaces that were then used in both men's and women's boots. On August 29, 1893, he was granted another patent for what he called the "clasp-locker." Though the prototype was somewhat clumsy and frequently jammed, it did work. In fact, Judson and his business associate, Lewis Walker, had sewn the device into their own boots.

Although Judson displayed his clasp-locker at the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893, the public largely ignored it. The company founded by Judson and Walker, Universal Fastener, never really succeeded in marketing the device despite further refinements. In 1913, after a Swedish-American engineer, Gideon Sundbach, remodeled Judson's fastener into a more streamlined and reliable form, the zipper became a success. The U.S. Army applied zippers to the clothing and gear of the troops in World War I. By the late 1920s, zippers could be found in all kinds of clothing, footwear, and carrying cases. By the mid-1930s, zippers had even been embraced by the fashion industry.

The term "zipper" was coined as an onomatopoeia by B.F. Goodrich, whose company started marketing galoshes featuring the fastener in 1923.

Regrettably, Whitcomb Judson died in 1909 and never heard the term or saw the success of his invention.