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Start Great Little Inventions: Scissors
11 August 2015

Great Little Inventions: Scissors

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“It is difficult to imagine daily living without scissors. Opening packages and letters, cutting out recipes, cutting thread and cord, making clothes, slipcovers and home accessories, cutting cuticle, trimming nails, hair cutting, picking flowers, darning, cutting samples, patching, cutting out paper dolls, metal work, and upholstery are just a few of the familiar, everyday things which scissors accomplish, but which their absence would make drudgery.”

They could be words written today, but the truth is that they were published 67 years ago in a volume released in 1948 by the house of scissors J. Wiss & Sons Co., of Newark (New Jersey, United States) to mark its centenary. In spite of modern electronics, robotics and the digital age, a simple pair of scissors is still obligatory in any home or workplace. Proof of this is that, while businesses of all kinds come and go, scissors have sustained the Wiss family business since 1848. More amazing still, the Zhang Xiaoquan company in Hangzhou (China) has been manufacturing its scissors since 1663, in the time of the famous Ming Dynasty.

Collection of scissors typically used in a 21st century home. Credit: Becky Stern

Today scissors exist in all shapes and sizes, for left-handed people and even to be operated by the foot. They are present in mythology and superstition: Atropos, one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, used them to cut the life thread of mortals, and in some cultures it is believed that scissors bring bad luck and should never be left open. But perhaps what many people don’t know is that, while trimming their nails or opening a package, they are making use of one of the oldest technologies invented by humans. They are so old that their true origin, in the words of the chemist and technology historian Aaron N. Shugar of the State University of New York in Buffalo (USA), “appears to be lost in the shroud of history.”

In fact, countless reports about the origin of scissors are wrong: they weren’t invented by Leonardo da Vinci, since they appear historically in much earlier times than the Florentine genius. But according to the experts, neither is there any evidence that they arose in ancient Egypt around 1500 BC, as argued on many popular websites and even Wikipedia.

Before adopting their current form, scissors began as small shears made from one single U-shaped piece of bronze, with both ends sharpened to cut with pressure applied by the hand. According to the textile archaeologist Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, “scissors did not develop until about the first century AD, and there is no evidence to suggest that the ancient Egyptians used them. Similarly, shears did not appear in Egypt until the Ptolemaic period [from 305 BC], or possibly even the Roman period.”

Scissors (dating to 3rd to 1st century BC) found at oppidum Manching, Germany. Credit: Andreas Franzkowiak

Vogelsang-Eastwood is supported by the research of the eminent Victorian Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, who in 1918 wrote in Scientific American magazine: “The world did without shears for many ages, cloth being cut with a rounded-blade knife. About 400 BC the mechanical genius of Italy invented the shears, that in two or three centuries more were fitted to the fingers, and thus started the scissors.” However, more recent research attributes an earlier origin, though not in Egypt but in the Middle East. The work published in 1995 by the French archaeologist Jean-Claude Margueron in the magazine The Biblical Archaeologist, included scissors among the objects found in the ancient city of Emar (now in Syria), dating from the fourteenth century BC. For his part, Shugar notes that iron shears are mentioned for the first time in a Neo-Babylonian clay tablet from the sixth century BC: “Thus it appears that shears, in some form, may originate in the Near East, but no existing archaeological objects are known to the present authors.”

The current form, two pieces joined by a screw, appeared in Rome in the first century AD, and its presence soon began to be documented throughout the world, from the West to China. According to the Wiss book, one of the first written references corresponds to the sixth-century scribe Isidore of Seville, who described cross-bladed scissors with a central pivot as tools of the barber and tailor. During the Middle Ages and in later epochs, they were objects of fine craftsmanship that added one precious quality to their usefulness: the shanks were moulded into the shapes of animals, castles or even the legs of women, the Jambes des Princesses that, according to the Wiss book, were all the rage in France in the eighteenth century.

Many years have passed since Jacob Wiss, founder of the house that bears his name, used a St. Bernard dog running on a treadmill to power his machinery. Today steel has been joined by other materials such as titanium or tungsten carbide, and scissors manufacturing has become automated. But there is one thing that has not changed: scissors are still handled today just as they were almost 2,000 years ago. When we use them, we are performing a gesture that mankind has been repeating since almost the dawn of history.

By Javier Yanes for Ventana al Conocimiento (Knowledge Window)

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