When Norwegian inventor Johan Vaaler filed a patent for his paper clip design in 1899, he had no idea that it was outdated. A superior design (the Gem paper clip) was already available elsewhere in the world by then. He was even less aware that 30 years after his death, his work would play a part in the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Norway managed to remain neutral through the First World War, but wasn’t so lucky the second time around. Its strategic position across the English Channel was too important to ignore. In 1940, 350,000 German troops marched into Norway, sending the King into exile in the UK. Until the war ended, the people of Norway participated in one of the most sustained and widespread resistance movements against German occupation.
The German force outlawed symbols of the Norwegian royalty. They also mandated that all Jews wear a yellow star to pick them out of the crowd. In solidarity with their King and with their discriminated Jewish brethren, the Norwegian populace took on the paper clip as their symbol of unity. In Norwegian, paper clips also happen to be called ‘binders’ adding to the symbolism. The myth of the paper clip being a Norwegian invention, by Johan Vaaler, grew and they wore it on their lapels in defiance.
The occupation forces soon grew wise to the protest and banned the wearing of paper clips. Many were jailed for this offense, but the resistance continued. With help from British forces from across the channel, they ran many missions to disable the German war machinery.
In 1943 when the Germans were leading in the race to build a nuclear bomb, Norwegian resistance fighters blew up a heavy water manufacturing plant. The next year they sank a German ship carrying half a ton of heavy water and the manufacturing equipment back to Germany. These would end up being major setbacks to Nazi weapons research and as we know they never quite got to a nuclear bomb. History would have been quite different if they had.
These events were fueled in no small part by national pride and that popular symbol of Norwegian ingenuity and unity, the paper clip. Does it matter that the myth of Vaaler’s invention wasn’t quite true? Probably not. As late as 1999 and the 2000s, Norway has built memorials and issued postage stamps to celebrate the paper clip protests and a great Norwegian gift to the world.
Norwegians commonly — yet mistakenly — attributed the invention of the paper clip to countryman Johan Vaaler, and it became a symbol of unity and resistance in the Nazi-occupied country during World War II. This commemorative stamp is dedicated to Vaaler, but shows the Gem paper clip, already in existence when he received his patent for a different design in 1901.
Besides, you can imagine hardened resistance fighters skulking through the night and taking the fight to the Nazi troops in occupied Norway. Perhaps they kept their faith with a tiny paper clip attached to their well-worn shirts. That story is true and for that alone, Johan Vaaler would be proud.
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