Meadville Tribune

Local News

April 25, 2012

Internet juggernaut Google spotlights zipper's inventor

MEADVILLE — Eric Sundback had no idea that a worldwide celebration of his father’s 132nd birthday was under way until his daughter called early Tuesday morning.

“You’d better look at the computer,” she said.

The elder Sundback and the famous invention he had helped perfect and market worldwide — from his adopted hometown of Meadville — had zipped prominently into an international spotlight. It was on the lead page of Google.com.

“While researching doodle ideas, we came across the story of zipper developer Gideon Sundback — an engineer who emigrated to the States in the early 20th century,” Sophia Foster-Dimino, the artist on Google’s doodle team who worked on the Sundback zipper, told The Meadville Tribune in an e-mail message Tuesday afternoon. “On the doodle team, we love to honor those who have applied innovation and ingenuity to make the world a better place, and the zipper is certainly an invention worthy of commemoration. It’s a device so simple it’s brilliant — and we tried to reflect that in the straightforward design of the doodle, which uses web technologies like Canvas and HTML5.”

So, what Eric Sundback saw on Tuesday was what his son-in-law, an electrical engineer and accomplished computer programmer in his own right, had discovered at 2 a.m. when he woke up, went on-line and was greeted by the sight of a zipper splitting the screen at Google.com.

His wife’s call to her parents, however, wasn’t made until shortly after 9 a.m.

Speaking by telephone to the Tribune from his West Virginia home, “I’m happy to see it,” Sundback said of the now-famous Google doodle, which has been described by more than one visitor to the website as reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ infamous 1971 “Sticky Fingers” album cover.

The younger Sundback, now in his mid-80s, did, however, have a word of warning for anyone attempting to learn the story of Gideon Sundback and the zipper via a Google search: Beware. The articles aren’t necessarily as accurate as one might hope. For example, his father, then a young Swedish engineer, didn’t stop over in Canada on his way from Germany, where his parents sent him to school, to the United States, where he applied apparently boundless energy and engineering genius to the concept of the slide fastener, an idea first conceived in the early 1890s that he managed to bring to practical fruition for the first time in 1913.

Also, their family name has never been written with an umlaut — especially in Sweden.

And although some accounts make it sound like the now-ubiquitous zipper was adopted immediately by the clothing industry, “you didn’t get zippers in trousers and dresses for a long time,” Eric Sundback said.

From the files of Crawford County Historical Society, a history of Talon Inc., the Meadville company that took the zipper into clothes closets, world wars and even to the moon in astronauts’ space suits, describes the founder of the company, Col. Lewis Walker, as “particularly anxious to share the fruits of his success with the man who, because of his indefatigable hours of application and labor, had perhaps contributed more to this success than any other one.”

The account, which was probably written shortly after Walker’s death in 1938, describes comments Walker made about Sundback during a meeting of stockholders in 1919.

“The hookless fastener and the special machinery to manufacture it are the creation of his genius. The earlier inventions, while containing certain mechanical principles involved in the present fastener, in use, proved that they contained elements of weakness that made them impractical and would defeat their eventual general use,” Walker said. “To Mr. Sundback are we indebted for the present successful invention and special machinery for manufacturing it. His patient study and burning the midnight oil during all these (14) years has resulted in our present assured success.”

Sundback had generated that hookless fastener (you no longer needed a button hook to fasten your shoes or boots) into a modern-day marvel. Along the way, he made Meadville his home; in fact, he is buried in Greendale Cemetery.

And his invention represents a success story that Google was happy to zip onto its own website.

“One of the unexpected bonuses of the doodle is that we’ve been seeing lots of feedback from users who were happy to learn about Sundback for the first time,” Foster-Dimino continued in her Tuesday email. “We love it when doodles are educational for our users in addition to being fun and exciting. For example, we’ve done doodles for architect Mies van der Rohe, painter Juan Gris, and photographer Eadweard Muybridge — all of which were executed in a style relevant to the individual so that our users can learn more about them and their cultural contributions.”

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