I imagine the inventor of the zip fastener as an older, partly jolly, partly grumpy man: jolly when his wife is away, grumpy otherwise. He has sparse, white hair, although he is not yet really that old; a slightly lame leg, which he unnoticeably drags, thoughtful spectacles, and a low, folded collar, like his grandfather wore. He is a German-American, and his name is Sam.
One night, Sam can not sleep. It is a grumpy night, his wife is lying next to him, looking like a somewhat older, somewhat fat girl, not a particularly pleasing sight. And Sam isn’t pleased: he has turned over on his other side and is thinking. Thinking about what?
Certainly not about inventing the zip fastener. Sam is neither an engineer nor a technician, he is a book-keeper in a flower seed company. But in his spare time he plays around with anything he can get his hands on, much to the chagrin of his fat girl: with clocks, radios, cars, window blinds, and even with the holy bathroom fittings. At the moment, it is his wife’s handbag which has captured his interest. There is something about this bag that he doesn’t like.
Now the fat girl makes a limp movement in half-sleep. “Leo,“ she whispers. Leo was her first husband. Sam screws up his nose. He doesn’t like Leo. Leo is a successful vinegar salesman, wears such high collars, and has a wife who comes from the North, and sounds as though she does. Anyway, the handbag has a strap, and this strap bothers Sam. That’s what he’s thinking about. If one were to… and he sinks into reflection.
The girl wakes up with a start. “Sam!“ No Sam. „Burglars!“ There are noises in the kitchen, there are noises in the apartment. The girl simply dies from shock, recovers, dies again and then hides her nicely coiffeured head under the pillow foreseen for such eventualities. Then Sam appears in front of her. „What are you shouting about?“ he complained plaintively. His eyes are alight. He is jolly-grumpy. “Sam! There are burglars. Did you…?“ „I’ve found it«, said Sam. »What have you found?« asked the girl. „That with the strap“, said Sam. „Now? In the middle of the night?“ asked the girl. »Yes. Now. In the middle of the night”, said Sam. And he got back into bed and heard nothing and saw nothing, and his old, yellow hands made such strange movements on the quilt that the girl can only shake her head and think of Leo, of whom she has luckily got rid, and a completely different life which she could have led, with a Douglas Fairbanks in the morning and a Valentino for the afternoon. And the girl has to cry, very quietly, because Valentino is dead, and Leo is still alive. Sam smiles.
From mid-day the next day, a Saturday, until the following Saturday evening, Sam sits at his little workbench, and squeezes and hammers and tweaks with pliers, and then he goes into the garden hut and hammers around on the tiny anvil, and lets his welding device splutter, and is altogether very active. On Monday he presents himself to the chairman of a large consortium which buys its flower seeds from Sam.
„You pull here“, said Sam. „Look, like this. And here, like this“ The chairman doesn’t say anything; he moves his hands like the flapping of the wings of a big bird of prey.
„Show me“, he says slowly. And he takes the little leather thing with metal studs which Sam holds out to him, in the hand. And pulls. It’s very quiet in the small room. „That’s“, said the chairman, quickly recovering his composure. „That’s, um, not entirely useless. How much do you want for it?“ Numbers are bandied about. „Have you got a description?“ asks the chairman. No, Sam hasn’t. The chairman rings a bell. A less fat girl appears; Sam is supposed to dictate, but doesn’t know how. The chairman helps him, and they produce a fairly cobbled-together explanation. The chairman is happy with it. Sam, who can suddenly see a filled-out cheque dancing before his eyes, has a vision. The less fat girl contributes to it. Sam accepts the chairman’s offer. Sam, you donkey!
As soon as Sam leaves the room, the chairman rushes to the patent office with a few sheets of paper and the little leather bag.
In the management conference the blood rushes to everyone’s head. It‘s… I’ve never in my life… Each and every one of those no-nonsense guys gets it straight away. The hard American heads move quickly to and fro above the correctly knotted ties. Here is finally the chance, the big chance, they’ve been waiting for. And just as they are all about to split up, in the sure knowledge of having stumbled upon the greatest opportunity of their lives, and determined, with God’s help, to exploit it fully, just then, the youngest among them asked a question. It was a simple question, but silence fell in the small room. „How does it work?“ he asked.
All conversations were chopped off. Yes, how does it work? Then everybody spoke at once. Everybody said they knew, but nobody did. Hurried hands flicked through the description which old Sam had dictated, and which had been neatly copied and laid out in front of each place at the conference table. But it only explained how to make and use the zip fastener, not why it works. Why? With an energetic gesture, the chairman lifts the receiver of the telephone on the table, and asks for a number.
„Not at home“, he says. „What do you mean, not at home? He should immediately… Excuse me, madam, but your husband is? What? And he said nothing to you? That is very strange? And he didn’t come home at lunch time either? He is, contrary to his usual habits, not at home?“ They all look at each other in consternation. And then everybody explains at once, again, why a zip fastener, the opportunity of their lives, works, why it must work! But they don’t know. Nobody knows. Where is the inventor of the zip fastener?
The inventor of the zip fastener has cashed the cheque, and run off with a slim, blond, heavenly-powdered, gracious girl – to Paris, because that’s how they do it in books and films. Sam has a wallet full of dollars. The girl has a heart (and all the rest) of celluloid. They have sailed across the ocean, and now they are in Paris.
In the meantime, the first bags with zip fasteners have been produced, and they are a sensation. Everybody wants a zip: tobacco sacks, ladies‘ handbags, little suitcases,and minister’s portfolios – and it’s just a shame that you can’t use zips on all women’s clothes. And the competition weeps when it sees the little embossed symbol in the metal, which indicates how well this devilish little trick is protected. „Never mind!“ we’ll have to wait fort he next chance. We’ve missed this one.
And nobody knows how it works. Nobody can explain why the zip fastener works. Nobody knows. The manufacturers can make them, but they don’t know exactly what it is that they are making. I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows.
And the only person who does know, is sitting, as you read, in Paris, on the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens and rue Helder, selling newspapers. He doesn’t have a penny, poor Sam; the celluloid girl has left him for another Sam, whose name is George. The wallet is empty, the dollars have flown away, and what’s left is a poor, old man who has only one small consolation left in his heart when he crawls into his little boarding hotel in the Boulevard Sébastopol at night, in which he shares a stuffy room with eight barrow boys.
He knows why the apparently so simple, all-conquering zip fastener works. And he’s not telling!