The History of the Paper Punch

 The paper punch, that uniquely indispensable office tool, was invented at the end of the 19th century, patented nearly simultaneously in Germany and the United States. 

The office environment in which the paper punch was invented was vastly different than our computer-assisted, nearly paperless offices today. Nevertheless, there were copy machines, filing cabinets that ranged in size from six to one hundred drawers, inkstands, typewriters, stenographer's chairs, and, most of all, paper. Stacks and stacks and stacks of forms and deeds and legally important documents that needed to be accessible to make an office successful.

The paper punch was a key invention, allowing the organization and binding of all that paper. Although the office computer and Adobe pdf files have made paper punches all but obsolete, the innovations of the paper punches led the way to the modern office. 

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The History of the Paper Punch

Three Hole Paper Punch
Simon Brown/Getty Images

A paper punch is a relatively simple device also called a hole punch, that is often found in the office or school room, and punches holes in paper. The primary reason for the desk punches' holes is so that sheets of paper can be collected and stored in a binder. A hand-held paper punch is also commonly used to punch holes in paper tickets to prove admission or usage.

The invention of the modern paper punch needs to be credited to three individuals, two United States citizens, and one German. Their contributions to the office world are described in three separate patents for the paper punch.

  • Benjamin Smith's 1885 Conductor's Punch
  • Friedrich Soenneckens 1986 Hole Punch
  • Charles Brooks' 1893 Ticket Punch
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Friedrich Soennecken's Papierlocher fur Sammelmappen

Friedrich Soennecken's Two Hole Punch

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The credit for the office version of the paper punch needs to go to Friedrich Soennecken (1848–1919), an office supplies entrepreneur who first invented the ring binder, then needed a two-hole punch to enable the binding process. His device stood on an office desk and used a lever to punch down through a stack of papers. 

Soennecken was an incredibly inventive man in the office world, opening his office in Remscheid in 1875. He is best remembered for inventing a version of the writing style known as round calligraphy using the rounded tip of the feather of a pen nib (Methodical Text Book to Round Writing 1877) and the pen nib to do it, an ink container with a stable stand. His patent for the two-hole punch (Papierlocher fur Sammelmappen) was filed on November 14, 1886.

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Benjamin Smith's Conductor's Punch

History of the Paper Punch - Benjamin Smith's Hole Punch
USPTO

Benjamin C. Smith's patent predated Soennecken's by a year and a half, but it had a different general purpose: a ticket puncher for conductors on railroad trains. Smith was granted U.S. patent number 313027 on February 24, 1885. ​​

Smith's design was handheld, and it used two metal pieces with a hole in the bottom piece and a sharp round cutting implement on the other end. The two pieces were attached using a spring that gave the punch strength to work through a piece of paper. His design included a receptacle for retaining the cuttings, built into the lower jaw that could be emptied by pressing a lever. 

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Charles Brooks' Ticket Punch

History of the Paper Punch - Charles Brooks' Ticket Punch
USPTO

In 1893, Charles E. Brooks patented a paper punch called a ticket punch. Although similar to Smith's design, his innovation was that the receptacle to hold paper cuttings was removable and larger than Smiths. He filed U.S. Patent 50762 on October 31, 1893. 

Brooks was another man of enormous ingenuity but is perhaps best known for the invention of the street sweeper in 1896, an invention that used rotating brushes, still part of street sweeping today. 

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20th and 21st Century Designs

A paper hold punch can organize your notes
Getty Images/Gregoria Gregoriou Crowe fine art and creative photography.

The two types of hole punches—hand held and desk set—are basically the same construction as that designed over 130 years ago. The earliest hole punches were two- and four-hole, but after the United States office work juggernaut standardized the three-hole punch, the international market followed suit. 

Major innovations in hand-held punches are new shapes: handheld ticket punches are manufactured to cut out a wide range of different shapes including circles, hearts, squares, balloons, scallops, and starbursts. Desk-style punches have been scaled up to suit manufacturing needs, to cut through a wide range of materials, cloth, leather, thin plastic, and even sheet metal.