To a fierce competitor, instead of being a discouragement, the failure of predecessors to achieve a goal can be a powerful motivator. Ask any athlete. The fact that no one before him had run a four-minute mile did not discourage Roger Bannister from attempting to do so. He succeeded in 1954, and since that time, many others have broken the four-minute barrier. Analogous achievements have occurred in many other sporting events.
In the field of inventions, hopefuls focus on points of failure to zero in on what needs improvement. One late 20th century American inventor concentrated on the enduring tendency of the Gem’s sharp and rough wire ends to damage paper. To him, eliminating the ends altogether would eliminate the fault. The logic is impeccable, but how can you form a paper clip from a piece of wire that has no ends?
He could not do that, of course, but what he could do was form a clip out of a conventional piece of wire, and then join the two ends to create an “endless filament paper clip.” The unorthodox-looking device certainly achieved its inventor’s objective, but at some major costs: It used more wire than a Gem; its fabrication involved the extra step of joining the two ends together; and its unfamiliar shape did not identify it as a paper clip, let alone suggest to the potential user how it worked. It succeeded in the patent office but not in the marketplace.
One German inventor eliminated the rough details by first forming small balls on the ends of the piece of wire that was to be bent into the familiar Gem shape. The balled ends naturally eliminated any troublesome burrs, and so the clip was very gentle on paper. There was an extra manufacturing cost, but the finished product did not look so different from a classic Gem. In fact, its ball-ends identified it as an obvious improvement.
Other inventors have addressed rough wire ends by starting with a longer piece of wire, and forming the clip so that when it's attached to paper, its ends fall near or beyond the edges, making it less likely to snag them.
There always seems to be new challenges for the paper clip inventor. One very recently introduced clip addresses the concern that steel can damage a paper shredder. The new clip is made out of highly compressed paper products, so it can be left on documents sent to the shredder and do no harm. It does not look anything like a Gem, but resembles the kind of plastic paper clip introduced decades ago to deal with the perceived problem of steel clips demagnetizing floppy disks.
Things old and new are full of lessons for invention and design.