History of the Zipper
Since YKK manufactures roughly 3 million kilometers worth of zippers every year, some assume we invented this integral apparel product. However, the invention of the zipper predates our company’s founding. This begs the question: Who invented the zipper?
Let’s find out!
1851: Elias Howe Jr. and the Unutilized Patent
In 1851, inventor Elias Howe Jr. secured a patent for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.” Despite this, Howe abandoned the pursuit to invent a device that would automatically keep garments fastened, likely due to the success of his most famous invention, the sewing machine. Thus, while Elias Howe Jr. is a key figure in the history of the noble zipper, he himself was not its originator. To credit the rightful inventor of the zipper, we must look to Whitcomb L. Judson.
1891-1893: Whitcomb L. Judson and the Clasp Locker
Whitcomb L. Judson is most often credited with the invention of the zipper, which he referred to as the “Slide Fastener” or “Clasp Locker.” The clasp locker was composed of hooks and eyes and its first use was as a shoe fastener (although Judson hoped it would eventually be applied to other types of products). One of Judson’s goals in inventing this device was to eliminate the tediousness that came with fastening boots which at that time, utilized a series of buttons to enclose the wearer’s foot.
Judson’s November 1891 patent for the clasp locker was almost rejected due to the wide range of shoe fasteners being issued patents at the time. Nevertheless, an improved version was finally approved in May 1893 and later that same year, Judson debuted his invention to the public at the Chicago World’s Fair. While Judson undoubtedly invented the zipper, it did not see much popularity during his lifetime due to its tendency to pull itself apart.
1911-1923: Gideon Sundback’s Redesign and the Birth of the Word “Zipper”
As head designer at the Universal Fastener Company, Gideon Sundback sought to improve upon Judson’s faulty zipper. After his wife’s death in 1911, Sundback buried his grief by throwing himself into his work, eventually securing a patent for the “Hookless Fastener No. 1” on April 29, 1913 (later dubbed National Zipper Day) and then another for the “Separable Fastener” in 1917. Sundback’s fastener utilized rows of interlocking metal teeth, which were more ergonomically feasible than Judson’s hooks and eyes.
Even though the separable fastener resembles the modern zipper in practically every way, it was still not referred to by the word “zipper” until 1923, when the B. F. Goodrich Company decided to use Sundback’s product for a new type of rubber boots. The company began referring to the product as a zipper due to the “zip” sound it made when fastened, and the term caught on!
1934-Present: YKK and the CYCLE OF GOODNESS®
Only after the contributions of Howe, Judson, Sundback, and the B.F. Goodrich Company does YKK get added to the zipper history books.
In January of 1934, Tadao Yoshida launched San-es Shokai, a company that processed and sold zippers, in Tokyo, Japan. In 1938, he built a manufacturing plant in Tokyo. The plant was burned down in the Great Tokyo Air Raids in March of 1945, and a decision was made to rebuild in Uozu, where Tadao Yoshida and his wife and employees had taken refuge. He made a fresh start after the conclusion of the war as “Yoshida Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha” (YKK).
YKK’s CM6 fastener chain machine is the foundation of the company’s vertically integrated manufacturing system. In 1950, the Group introduced a U.S.-made chain machine to Japan to improve its productivity and quality. The machine, which was put to practical use in 1953, featured the ability to alternately fix into place the interlocking parts (elements) of the chain thanks to the modified components, an epoch-making invention which won YKK its first patent.
Several years later, YKK began developing its own machinery from the ground up, and in 1959 developed the CM3, which was equipped with punching and alternating fixing mechanisms. Then in 1964, the company developed the CM6, which at the time was the world leader in terms of mass production quality. Since the development of the CM6, YKK has been able to stably produce high-quality zippers at low cost.
In 1958, YKK succeeded in the development of the 56S aluminum alloy that specialized Japanese manufacturers had yet to achieve. The development of this metal material enabled significant technological advances in zipper production. In addition to leading to the expansion of overseas sales of concealed zippers, it also provided for the opportunity to enter the aluminum architectural products business.
From the mid-1950s onward, Tadao focused on building overseas plants for local production based on his management philosophy of giving priority to contributing to the benefit of the country in which the company is working. Overseas expansion advanced rapidly from the mid-1960s onward. In 1974, the first overseas integrated production plant was built in Macon, Georgia, U.S.A. You can read more about that in Episodes 7 and 8 of YKK Episodes.
Until his death in 1993, Tadao expanded his business globally based on the management philosophy of the CYCLE OF GOODNESS®. At the heart of the CYCLE OF GOODNESS is the idea that “no one prospers without rendering benefit to others.” Tadao Yoshida firmly believed that business belongs to society. As an important member of society, a company survives through coexistence. When the benefits are shared, the value of the company’s existence will be recognized by society. When pursuing his business, Tadao was most concerned with that aspect and would find a path leading to mutual prosperity. He believed that using ingenuity and inventiveness in business activities and constantly creating new value would lead to the success of clients and business partners and make it possible to contribute to society. It serves as the foundation of our business activities to this day.
For a comprehensive history of YKK, click here.
For a detailed discussion on the history and significance of the zipper featuring YKK Corporation of America president Jim Reed, click here.
Sources accessed: Whitcomb L. Judson | Military Wiki | Fandom, HISTORY OF ZIPPER | ABOUT A ZIP | YKK GALLERY | YKK DIGITAL SHOWROOM, The History of the Zipper and How It Became Mainstream (thoughtco.com), NATIONAL ZIPPER DAY – April 29, 2022 – National Today, HISTORY : YKK GROUP