Uptime: True Story — Continuous Improvement
Bob Williamson | September 20, 2017
While sitting at my 1905 roll-top desk, pondering the subject for this month’s column, my gaze fell upon a cherished, albeit small, antique item—something from my grandfather’s old office.
It had sparked my imagination when, as a young boy, I first saw it, and I still find it intriguing. Let’s look at how this elegantly simple, yet complex, 100+-yr.-old tool evolved. It’s a good example of continuous improvement.
Time marches on
The Second Industrial Revolution, from 1870 through 1914 and leading up to World War I, reflected heady times for industrial development. The United States had become the creative hub of the world and was generating thousands of new inventions and patents. Sometimes referred to as The Age of Synergy, this period’s increased manufacturing productivity helped usher in the concept of mass production.
Among other things, the Second Industrial Revolution led to methods for large-scale business organizations operating in larger regional, national, and global geographies. Along the way, office communications became increasingly important. From 1910 to 1914, with countless improved business practices taking hold, the U.S. economy was booming. Inventors and entrepreneurs worked feverishly to capitalize on the era’s many opportunities.
As office communications improved, so did the use of office paper. Typewriters began to see widespread use in businesses in the mid-to-late 1880s. By 1910, office clerks were cranking out sheaves of letters, contracts, and other business documents, along with carbon copies. These documents were held together by various temporary attachments: string being the most common for the largest multi-page documents and pins the most common for smaller ones (two to 10 pages). Unfortunately, pins often pricked the fingers of those who prepared the documents and those who read them, adding tiny blood spots to previously pristine pages. Pins also left holes surrounded by rusty iron stains on the paper. There had to be a better way.
There was. New, inexpensive processes could produce steel with a variety of ingredients that led to low-cost wire. That wire, in turn, could be rust-proofed and used for a wide range of applications, including safety pins and thumb tacks.
In the late 1800s, the ability to clip papers together with bent steel wires and spring-like devices had become a reality. Paper clips largely came into being after inventor William Middlebrook patented a machine for making them in 1899. (Amazingly simple, these familiar, double-looped wire devices have endured, relatively unchanged, for nearly 120 years.) But, paper clips have a disadvantage. They can fall off and turn stacks of well-ordered papers into disordered heaps. While paper clips represented a better alternative to string and pins, a more permanent, yet removable, method of organizing paper documents was needed.
A small handful of inventors took up the challenge. The first one to succeed in a major way was Thomas Briggs, founder of the Boston Wire Stitching Co. In 1914, he introduced the first portable stapling machine (a cumbersome precursor to the 1924 desktop stapler that would use strips of pre-formed staples). But let’s back up a few years.
In the Midwest, 40-yr.-old George P. Bump had been fascinated by the creative ways office clerks assembled multi-page letters and small documents. He came up with a better idea—one that fastened papers together without the use of metal clips. Bump completed his first working model, a desktop design, on Mar. 1, 1909, and filed for a U.S. Patent on May 14. His patent was issued on June 24, 1913. A year later, the Bump Paper Fastener Co. was established in La Crosse, WI, to manufacture the device.
There was more to Bump’s invention, though—an improvement of his desktop model in the form of a hand-held version using the same technology. This device for “fastening paper or like sheets together,” as the application reads, was patented on July 21, 1914. Sales took off. As a 1916 magazine article stated, “These fasteners have been sold all over the entire globe. Many thousands are being shipped every month to foreign countries. . . ” and “. . . put La Crosse on most every business man’s desk in the entire world.” Advertisements went further, claiming “The New Model Bump Paper Fastener is recognized as a modern office necessity.”
One of those modern office necessities graced my grandfather’s “business- man’s desk” for many years, and now resides on mine. Even now, I marvel at its little duck bill and the way it engages paper to do the intended job: With a simple squeeze of the hand, it punches a v-shaped hole with an adjacent slit in which the end of the v-shaped flap is automatically tucked.
To the point
As for the moral of this story? Making new ideas work and continuously improving them over time was important when it came to revolutionizing methods for fastening sheets of paper together. The same holds true for our reliability and maintenance efforts today—and improvements for the future.