Hole Punch History Reveals an Inventor Inspired by Renaissance Engineers

The humble lever packs a punch.


Tuesday’s Google Doodle celebrates the 131st anniversary of the day Friedrich Soennecken filed a patent for what would soon become arguably the sleekest, most elegant example of applied physics known to office workers around the globe: the hole punch. Soennecken, a German engineer, coupled this ergonomic paper-piercing invention with the ring binder for an unprecedented one-two organizational punch.

His invention makes use of the lever, one of Renaissance scientists’ six simple machines. Physicists would tell you that these elongated arms, fixed at one end to what’s known as a hinge or fulcrum, amplify the input force to create a greater output force. In other words, it feels like it takes much less effort to push or pull a lever than to do the heavy lifting yourself. Scissors are a type of lever, as are doors, see-saws, and the brake pedals of a car.

Hole punches, which have saved countless pencil-pushers from sweaty, unnecessary physical exertion in the workplace, are Soennecken’s graceful little contribution to the large list of these simple machines.

The hole punch uses a simple lever, which swings on its fulcrum to make paper-slicing easier on the user.


At the end of the lever of a typical hole punch is a sharp metal cylinder that, when the lever is pushed, should slice through a stack of paper with a crisp, satisfying click. The amount of resistance you feel when carving through paper will largely depend on two things: The amount of papers in the stack and the length of your hole punch’s arm.

These tiny hole punches use tiny little levers and can only cut through tiny stacks of paper.


A lever decreases the amount of effort you need to put into moving an object (a sharp cylinder through a stack of paper) by increasing the distance over which the force you put in acts (the length of the part of the lever you exert force upon). Generally speaking, if moving the object in question won’t require too much effort, then it’s safe to have a short lever and apply the force close to the fulcrum. For the same reason, if moving an object will require more force — say, you’re on a see-saw with a friend much heavier than you — it will seem easier to lift your friend when you sit at the edge of the see-saw, rather than near the fulcrum.

This is why most office-use hole punches, which don’t have to do especially strenuous hole-making work, have relatively short levers that are quite close to the actual hole-punching part of the machine.

Your average single-hole punch, which doesn't have to punch through too much paper, can get away with having relatively short lever arms.

Of course, hole punches need to be a bit more heavy-duty when you’re working with huge stacks of paper. That’s when you get hole punches with super-long lever arms, which spread the (much greater) force needed to operate these machines over a much larger area.

Heavy-duty hole punches, which require more effort through bigger stacks of paper, have bigger levers, which allow the user's force to be spread over a longer distance.


While the machine outlined in Soennecken’s original patent is ingenious in its simplicity, its elegance is bested by the “conductor’s punch” invented by Benjamin Smith in 1885, which also made use of effort-relieving levers but included a little collector at the bottom of the machine for gathering up all of the confetti that it inevitably produced. Smith might actually have beat Soennecken to the punch, but the German engineer clearly used all his efforts more wisely, making sure his name made it into the history books.

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