Whitcomb L. Judson bigraphy, stories - inventor

Whitcomb L. Judson : biography

1844 - 1909

Judson's original 'clasp locker' patent, 1893 Judson's improved 'clasp-locker' fastener, 1893

Whitcomb L. Judson (1846 – 1909) was an American machine salesman, mechanical engineer and inventor.Travers, pp. 702–703


Early life

Judson was born at March 7 1846 in Chicago, Illinois. According to the 1860 census, he lived in Illinois, and served in the Union army. He enlisted in 1861 at Oneida, Illinois in the Forty-Second Illinois Cavalry. Judson attended Knox College in his hometown Galesburg, Illinois. He was 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 Agricultural Works. A couple of years later Judson began working for Earle Manufacturing Company with Harry L. Earle as the head of the firm. Judson sold band cutters and grain scales for them along with other items as one of their salesmen.Friedel, p. 5


Street railway

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 Earle was 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.Friedel, pp. 6–10


Judson was an inventor who 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.Travers, p. 702 The zipper was invented by Whitcomb L. Judson, a Chicago, Illinois, mechanical engineer. 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.

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. Friedel, p. 16 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.

Judson's first slide fastener patent was applied for in November 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. Friedel, p. 2

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