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Whitcomb L. Judson

Whitcomb L Judson

Born March 1844
New York, New York
Died 1909
Resting place Chicago, Illinois
Nationality American
Occupation Businessman
Known for Inventor of Zipper
Spouse(s) Annie, m. 1874
Children Jane
Judson's original 'clasp locker' patent, 1893
Judson's improved 'clasp-locker' fastener, 1893

Whitcomb L. Judson (circa 1844 – 1909) was an American machine salesman, mechanical engineer and inventor.[1]


Judson was born about 1844 in Chicago, Illinois. He was in Illinois according to the 1860 census and served in the Union army. He enlisted in 1861 at Oneida, Illinois in the Forty-Second Illinois Cavalry. Judson did attend Knox College in his hometown college in Galesburg, Illinois. He is found in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1886. In 1886 and 1887 the Minneapolis city directory identifies Judson as a "traveling agent" — a traveling salesman working probably for Pitts Agicultural Works. A couple of years later Judson is found working for Earle Manufacturing Company with Harry Earl as the head of the firm. Judson sold band cutters and grain scales for them along with other items as one of their salesmen.[2]

Judson's railway patent, 1889

Judson began his efforts of making inventions around 1888 to 1889. His concentration was on inventions for a "pneumatic street railway". His first patented invention was for a "mechanical movement" related to that. In 1889 Judson obtained six patents related to his concept of a street railway running on compressed air. The concept was similar to the cable railway system but with pistons suspended beneath the railcar. Similar systems were tried throughout the nineteenth century, however they all failed because of sealing problems. Judson's similar inventions were also impractical and as a whole not very successful. The street railway concept ultimately went electric. It turned out, however, that Harry Earl was a promoter for the Judson Pueumatic Street Railway. They even had a demonstration line in 1890 in Washington, D.C. for about a mile that was at what is today Georgia Avenue. It ran for only a few weeks before they shut it down due to technical problems. A cable streetcar firm bought them out and turned it into an electric streetcar since Judson's system was impractical.[3]

Judson was an inventor that was awarded 30 patents over a sixteen year career. He received fourteen patents on street railway ideas before his most noteworthy invention — a chain-lock fastener. This was the precursor to the modern zipper which he developed and invented in 1890. Judson is recognized as the inventor of the zipper.[4][5] He also invented a "clasp-locker" automation production machine that made his fastener device inexpensively. There were many technical problems in making the "clasp-lockers" however.[1]

Judson’s metal zipper fastener device was called a "clasp-locker" in his day, not a zipper — which name came into existence many years after his death. The "clasp locker" was a complicated hook-and-eye fastener with an arrangement of hooks and eyes run by a "guide" for closing and opening a clothing item. The first application was as a shoe fastener and there is mention in the patents for possible applications for corsets, gloves, mail bags, and generally wherever it is desired to detachable connect a pair adjacent flexible parts. [6] It is also said one of the reasons he invented this device was to relieve the tedium of fastening high button boots that were fashionable in those days.[1]

Judson's first slide fastener patent was applied for in November of 1891. At the time the United States Patent Office didn't require a working model of a patent, only that the invention was to be a novel idea. However, his invention was almost rejected by the patent assistant examiner Thomas Hart Anderson because there were already several types of shoe fasteners already patented. He applied for a second patent on an improved version for the same item some nine months later before the first was even approved.[7]

The patent examiner was starting to think if Judson wasn't on a fishing exhibition to prove if his idea was actually novel. However, in the long run after the last amendment was filed the patent was approved in May 1893 along with an improvement version. When the two patents were finally issued on August 29 with 378 others that day they received the numbers U.S.P. 504,038 (first) and U.S.P. 504,037 (second). These patents describe several designs of the "clasp-locker". In later design patents of the fastener it speaks of the opposite elements on each side are identical to each other and fit together by the engaging of "pintles" and "sockets." In his patent U.S.P. 557,207 of 1896 is a description pretty much like the modern zipper we have today.

...each link of each chain is provided both with a male and female coupling part, and when the chains are coupled together the female part of each link on one chain is engaged by the male part of a link on the other chain.[8]

In 1893 Judson exhibited his new invention at the Chicago World's Fair where it had its first public debut. Judson soon thereafter launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture his new invention together with Harry Earl and Lewis Walker. Universal Fastener Company started out in Chicago and then moved to Elyria, Ohio. It then moved to Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, and then to Hoboken, New Jersey. The name changed eventually to Automatic Hook and Eye Company.[9]

Judson's "clasp-locker" met with little commercial success at first. He ultimately never saw much success in the "clasp-locker" as a fashion item during his lifetime. Judson made a "C-curity" clasp-locker fashener in 1905 which was an improved version of his previous patents. It tended to break open unexpectedly like the predecessors. Clothing manufacturers showed little interest in Judson's fastener perhaps because of this reason.[1]

An improved version of 1896 came with

a cam-action slider which is somewhat similar to the locker and unlocker shown in my prior patents, but which in this combination operates with a somwhat different action involving an automatic movement of the slider backward in the uncoupling action of the chains, and which slider is in this case designed to remain permanently on the shoe.[10]

Judson made his invention to save people the trouble of buttoning and unbuttoning their shoes every day as shows in his wording in the patent application. He describes this in his patent U.S.P. 557,207

foregoing statements it must be obvious that a shoe equipped with my device has all the advantages peculiar to a lace-shoe, while at the same time it is free from the annoyances hitherto incidental to lace-shoes on account of the lacing and unlacing required every time the shoes were put on of taken off the feet and on account of the lacing-strings coming untied. With my device the lacing-strings may be adjusted from time to time to take up the slack in the shoes, and the shoes may be fastened or loosened more quickly than any other form of shoe hitherto devised, so far as I am aware.[11]

In 1913 the zipper was improved by the Swedish-Canadian engineer, Gideon Sundbach, and also by Catharina Kuhn-Moos of Europe. Sundbach successfully redesigned Judson's fastener into a more streamlined and reliable form called "Talon." Automatic Hook and Eye Company then changed its name to the Hookless Fastener Company. In 1937 the Hookless Fastener Company became Talon, Inc.[9]

In 1918 a textile company manufactured flying suits for the United States Navy with this fastener. Judson's company received an order for thousands of their "clasp-locker" fasteners. Soon thereafter they appeared on gloves and tobacco pouches. The B. F. Goodrich company in 1923 installed these fasteners in their rubber galoshes calling the new design "Zippers." This then became the name of the fastener itself. The design of the fastener today is much like Sunbach's improvement of Judson's "clasp-locker."[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Travers, pp. 702–703
  2. ^ Friedel, p. 5
  3. ^ Friedel, pp. 6–10
  4. ^ "The History of the Zipper". Retrieved 2008-11-15. 
  5. ^ Travers, p. 702 The zipper was invented by Whitcomb L. Judson, a Chicago, Illinois, mechanical engineer.
  6. ^ Friedel, p. 16
  7. ^ Friedel, p. 2
  8. ^ Friedel, p. 17
  9. ^ a b Ups and Down of the Zipper, by Thomas V. DiBacco of The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.: March 29, 1982, p. W15
  10. ^ Friedel, p. 3
  11. ^ Friedel, p. 18


  • Gale, Robert L., The Gay Nineties in America: A Cultural Dictionary of the 1890s, Greenwood Press (1992), ISBN 0-3132781-9-9
  • Friedel, Robert, Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, ISBN 0-3933136-5-4
  • Leslie, Sarah et al., The World's Greatest Inventors, Platt & Munk, 1976, ISBN 0-4484961-4-3
  • Travers, Bridget World of Invention, Gale Research, 1994, ISBN 0-8103837-5-6

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