Every day millions of Americans zip up and zip down without ever recognizing how buttoned-up they were until the zipper came along.

The frustration in recalling the gadget's history is that the cast of characters and companies is complex and downright confusing.

The idea of a zipper appeared to originate with one Whitcomb L. Judson of Chicago. In the early 1890s, Judson got fed up with using hooks and eyes and buttons to keep his clothing attached, and so he came up with what was dubbed a slide fastener.

At the 1893 World's Fair in his hometown, Judson exhibited his invention. One Lewis Walker saw the Chicago exhibit and was convinced that Judson had no fly-by-night product.

With Judson's cooperation, Walker organized the Universal Fastener Co. to manufacture the device.

The company started out in Chicago, then moved to Elyria, Ohio; Catasuqua, Pa., and Hoboken, N.J. After so many moves it deserved a new name and got it: Automatic Hook and Eye Co.

By this time--the early 20th century--Judson had exited and Walker was left with a product that was receiving a mixed reception from the public. The slide fastener worked but not all the time, popping loose when it should have stayed closed, and vice versa.

Enter one Gideon Sundback in 1906. Sundback was a Swedish engineer who worked for Westinghouse, in particular on their large dynamos. He began working on the gadget with Walker, finally devising an improved product by 1913. It was called Talon, and the company became the Hookless Fastener Co. And it moved again, to Meadville, Pa.

Then in 1937 HFC became Talon, Inc. By this time the kinks had been taken out of the zipper, and Americans began, slowly, to use the device.

Most importantly, a dress manufacturer, to prop up sagging sales in the Great Depression, made the item a gimmick that soon became a mark of fashion. All the while, Talon worked to provide quality control and precision manufacturing instruments to ensure that what went up stayed there until the user decided otherwise. By 1938, the firm was producing three-fourths of all zippers in the nation and had 4,000 employes.

In more recent times, Talon was taken over by Textron, and the already intricate plot began to thicken.

Textron, in view of foreign competition and a slowdown in the home sewing market (sewdown for short), disposed of Talon in 1981. To be precise, Textron sold Talon to Nucon Holdings Inc., 49 percent of which is owned by Semicon Inc. Whew!