It was in ancient Egyptian times -- this being a complete history, we must begin there -- that man first took inky reed to papyrus and, not long thereafter, made his first disposable mistake: a hieroglyphic boo-boo of such embarrassing proportions he felt the need to rip it up in pieces so small nobody could see.
While man had always had an irresistible urge to express himself, he had mostly done so, up until the invention of papyrus in 4000 B.C., on immovable objects: cave walls, clay tablets and other not-easily-jettisoned, impossible-to-shred mediums. Papyrus, and its subsequent incarnations, changed all that.
What man first tore up we do not know. Maybe they were symbols (words weren't around yet) that pertained to his personal desires, recounted the day's events, or listed his financial assets. Maybe it wasn't man, after all, who did the tearing, but man's accountant.
In any event, shredding was born.
It would be another 5,940 years before machines were commercially produced to shred for him, but once they were, oh boy, nothing could stop them -- well, maybe a paper clip on your cheaper models -- but even so, in the United States, by the year 2002, a time when not much else was thriving, "information destruction" was a flourishing, multimillion-dollar industry.
Companies made the machines, companies sold the machines, and still others went mobile, arriving at business establishments with trucks equipped with grinders that chewed up and spit out in tiny shreds documents that weren't meant for the general public to see, and maybe, once in a while, some that were.
It is generally agreed that the paper-shredding machine originated in Germany around 1935 (though, as we shall later see, an eccentric American actually came up with and patented the idea first) when a toolmaker named Adolf Ehinger, taking his inspiration from a kitchen utensil, invented a device to render thrown-away paper unreadable.
For the next three decades, shredders were used primarily by the military, government and banking industry. Most of the public wasn't aware of their existence until they began to surface in connection with great American scandals: first, in the 1970s, with Watergate; again in the 1980s with Iran-Contra; and most recently, this year, with Enron.
In each, paper shredders -- more specifically, the allegedly nefarious use thereof -- became part of the story.
Like some doofus who likes to get his picture taken with celebrities, paper-shredding machines kept popping up during historic moments. Yet, for some reason, they lacked any documented history of their own. One might well ask why. Was it shredded? Forgotten? Or simply never recorded in the first place?
Many in the industry don't know the whole story, though it should be pointed out that they, as a rule, are not the type to spill any beans. News organizations have repeatedly printed inaccurate versions. Encyclopedias, while they contain lengthy entries on the invention of paper and the copying machine, have no mention of the invention, or inventor, of the shredder.
It's almost as if paper shredders -- because of their tremendous potential to abuse, disrespect, even negate, history -- are getting a similar treatment by history itself.
Hence, we have pieced together the work you now hold in your hands: the complete, unexpurgated, never-before-told, not-yet-shredded (though feel free to do so after reading) history of paper shredding.
Pasta, present and future
Adolf Ehinger was a simple, hard-working man. By day, he made and repaired tools and small machines in his shop in Balingen, Germany. But when no one was looking, he secretly printed anti-Nazi material.
One day, a neighbor spotted some of it in his garbage can, confronted Ehinger and threatened to report him to authorities. He didn't, but the incident made the tinkerer start thinking, both about what society was coming to and what he threw away.
"He was not a friend of the Third Reich," Ehinger's daughter-in-law, Renate Ehinger, 65, said in a telephone interview from Balingen. "He thought, when it gets to the point you can't write what you want to write, it was time to do something."
Ehinger couldn't change the world. But he could alter his garbage. The question was how.
He found the answer in the kitchen: the pasta maker. (Fig. 1)
Commonly used by Germans to make both pasta and their more traditional spaetzle, the hand-cranked devices turned sheets of dough into strips. Using that concept, he built a hand-cranked shredder inside a wooden frame, one with an opening wide enough to accept sheets of paper. Later, he constructed one with an electric motor. He patented the invention in Germany in 1936, and soon after that, took his aktenvernichter, or paper shredder, to a trade show.
"He was all excited. He went there with great hopes," said Mrs. Ehinger. "But all the people did was laugh at him. They said there was no way would you ever need something to shred paperwork. He came home very disappointed."
Ehinger was a strong-willed sort, though, and he persisted in trying to market the device. His method of destroying the written word -- borne, ironically enough, out of his desire to protect his freedom of expression -- worked even better than fire, his daughter-in-law said. "You can burn something but still find little pieces."
In the 1940s, amid the fears and paranoia of wartime, his contraption caught on. Ehinger began selling them locally, then across Germany and to other countries; governments and embassies bought them, and even individuals. During the war, Mrs. Ehinger said, people would use the device not just to shred paper, but tobacco, pasta and vegetables as well.
Ehinger built a company around his invention, and, with a boost from the Cold War, it thrived. By 1956, EBA Maschinenfabrik was selling shredders in almost every country, mostly to government offices and financial institutions.
In 1959, EBA introduced what many believe was the first crosscut, or particle-cut, shredder. It allowed the paper to be cut both horizontally and vertically. Before that, truth be told, a vertically shredded document, sitting alone in a trash can, was pretty much asking to be reassembled, and easily could be.
Ehinger died at 86 in 1984, after turning the business over to his son, also named Adolf Ehinger, now 77. He and his wife, Renate, headed the company until 1998, when they sold it to a competitor, Krug & Priester.
About 15 years ago, in what Mrs. Ehinger remembers as a proud moment, she brought one of her father-in-law's first shredders (serial number 74) to the United States so it could be displayed at an office machine museum in Kansas City.
Through the work of EBA and other companies, shredders continued to evolve through the latter half of the 20th century, grinding out smaller and smaller, less and less readable shreds.
There have been other technological developments in the field of information obliteration as well: wands that erase the contents of computer discs; machines that chemically "decopy," or wash the ink off paper; "disintegrators" that make paper into powder. In 1998, two University of Wisconsin students received an award for inventing a shredder that makes and records a computerized image of the document it is destroying.
On the surface, that would seem to defeat the purpose. But, as Adolf Ehinger intended, and as we will come to understand later (see Chapter 4, "Shredding is Good!") shredders -- despite the context in which we most often hear about them -- were meant to protect the innocent, not cover up the tracks of the guilty.
First, though, we must go back in time, to an earlier shredder that, for reasons unknown, never became known.
The shredder that left no legacy
A.A. Low was a complex, not-so-hardworking man. Born into a rich and powerful New York City family, he turned his nose up at college, tried but later spurned the idea of working for his shipping magnate father and, in the 1890s, headed into the remote and unpopulated Adirondack Mountains.
There, his work ethic kicked in.
He bought more than 40,000 acres of land. He built a railroad station. He established a post office and made himself postmaster of Horseshoe, N.Y. He created the Horse Shoe Forestry Co. He opened a sawmill. And a gristmill. He began producing maple sugar and syrup, jams and jellies, wines and cereals. He built two dams, one of which ended up flooding the town.
And 28 years before Ehinger's invention, he patented a paper shredder.
It was just one of many inventions, some of them way ahead of their time, for which Low never got credit. During his lifetime, he was second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents issued.
In 1899, a good 80 years before it became hip, he began bottling "Adirondack Mountain Virgin Forest Springs" water and shipping it to New York City. He invented new kinds of bottles with new kinds of lids, including one that was tamper-proof. And in 1908, long before anyone else saw a huge need for shredding documents, he received a patent for his "Waste Paper Receptacle." (Fig. 2)
"Be it known that I, Abbot Augustus Low ... have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Wastepaper Receptacles, of which the following is a specification," reads Patent No. 929,960, filed by Low in February 1908 and approved in August of that year.
Low's device had a feeder and blades on rollers that, using either a hand crank or electric motor, shredded the paper. It also compressed the fragments, like a modern-day trash compactor, and even had an automatic cutoff switch.
"My device is especially advantageous for use in offices, banks, counting houses, etc. under conditions where the practical destruction of correspondence, memoranda, liquidated bonds, accounts, books and the like is a desideratum," he wrote.
As with most of his inventions, Low, known as "Gus" to friends, never spent time marketing the device, instead moving on to other creations, some as simple as his "Natural Wood Fuel" (chunks of wood strung together on rope), some as complex as his "Electric Rat Trap," which both electrocuted and drowned (but did not shred) rats.
"There were steep stairs leading up to a platform on which the bait was displayed," a Jan. 18, 1914, Brooklyn Daily Eagle article said of the trap. "In order to reach the bait, the rat was forced to stand on a trap door, which opened downward into a tin tub of water. When the rat touched the bait ... [it] was electrocuted. ... Another piece of mechanism caused the trap door to open and [the] rat was precipitated into the water, from which there was no escape."
(Editor's note: This is not to say there is any connection between trapped rats and shredding documents, only that Low invented numerous and varied things.)
The Eagle article, published after Low's death, noted that he was an unconventional sort. "One of his little eccentricities was to use rubber bands, instead of laces, in his shoes, as he said they gave greater flexibility. He always carried a number of extra rubber bands in his pockets for this purpose."
He was a secretive man, too. Low, whose brother Seth became mayor of New York and, later, president of Columbia University, "almost clandestinely conducted the most elaborate experiments," the article said. He "lived and died without any mention at all ... of the fact that he was an inventor, so completely did he avoid publicity in this regard."
Low left Horseshoe and returned to Brooklyn around 1910 after forest fires scorched much of his land, rendering his forestry and maple syrup businesses useless.
After his death in 1912, Low's workshop equipment was auctioned off as junk, and his inventions -- the rat trap, rubber shoelaces and, aptly or not, the paper shredder* -- drifted into oblivion.
*A footnote: While Low's inspiration is believed to have been his own, and there are no signs that trade secrets were stolen, we would be remiss not to point out that Henry D. Perky, a Denver lawyer with chronic indigestion, patented a device similar to the paper shredder in 1893 -- 15 years before Low's receptacle, and 43 years before Ehinger's Aktenvernichter.
Perky, who believed boiled wheat could improve the world's digestion, had been experimenting with forms of the intestinally-friendly grain. After several variations (one of which testers noted tasted like "eating a whisk broom") he settled on boiled wheat that was shredded, then reconstituted in a pillow-shaped form. (Fig. 3)
In 1893, he and William Harry Ford were granted Patent No. 502,378 for a machine that churned out long strands of wheat. Perky went on to open the Shredded Wheat Co.'s factory in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The company was purchased by the National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco) in 1930.
While A.A. Low was also in the cereal business around that time, and also in upstate New York, there is no evidence -- not a shred -- of any connection between his device and Perky's.
Don't shred on me
For nearly 40 years, shredders, despite being noisy devils, operated quietly behind the scenes.
Then came Watergate.
From that day forward, "cover-up" would become part of the American argot, a phrase that had nothing to do with blankets, and everything to do with shredders.
Using a Shredmaster 400, G. Gordon Liddy, it would later be revealed, disposed of evidence pertaining to the 1972 break-in at National Democratic Party headquarters. Liddy, a former FBI agent working for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, served more than four years in prison for his role in the burglary and cover-up. Liddy is now host of his own radio show.
Fourteen years later, at the helm of an Intimus 007-S, National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver North (with help from his secretary, Fawn Hall) shredded documents relating to the Iran-Contra scandal. North now has his own radio show.
While the humans operating the machines bounced back nicely, shredders developed a negative public image they have not been able to shed since. At times, they were destroying crucial evidence about illegal deeds. At others, they were not destroying documents well enough.
In 1979, when the American Embassy in Tehran was seized by Iranian militants, top-secret documents -- in the process of being shredded by a low-tech, vertical-only cutter when the militants took their hostages -- were pieced back together with the assistance of Iranian women who were skilled at weaving Persian carpets. (Fig. 4) That massive security leak led to a governmentwide upgrade of shredding standards (requiring 1 / 32-inch-by- 1/2 -inch pieces).
Those standards remain in effect today, but are under review. Just last week, in fact, shredding industry leaders from across the country gathered at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade to discuss new and stricter rules -- unless that meeting was supposed to have been hush-hush, in which case, forget we said anything.
By the late 1980s, shredding machines were becoming more efficient, affordable and recognized. Desktop machines were showing up in the offices of top executives, where, still seen as a tool of somebody with something to hide, they mostly raised eyebrows. Why, employees wondered, does the boss need one of those?
In the ranks of office machines, the shredder was viewed as an arrogant, harsh and unfriendly newcomer. Its loud grinding was intrusive, compared with, say, the friendlier whir of a photocopier.
Too, it had a different mission. The photocopy machine is used to "spread the word." It makes an entirely new document. It can make one for everybody. The shredder chews the document into so many pieces no one can hope to ever put it back together again. The copier says, "Let's share." The shredder says, "It's none of your business."
The two, unarguably, have entirely different karmas.
If the copier machine can be seen as a symbol of America's psyche in the '60s, '70s and '80s, then the shredder, somewhere in the '90s, was poised to become the symbol for the new millennium.
Environmental regulations banned burning and encouraged recycling. There had been an information explosion and, despite computers, more and more of it was ending up on paper. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1987, had ruled that your garbage, once put out on the curb, is public property. Corporate espionage and identity theft had both surged in the '90's. And the economy was headed for a deep dive, prompting some profit-minded corporations to look at new, creative, shredder-intensive ways of bookkeeping.
Given all that, given the state of America in 2000, it was no wonder that the Golden Age of paper shredding was about to dawn.
"Shredding is Good!"
On Jan. 24, 2002, the National Association for Information Destruction issued a press release from its headquarters in Phoenix.
Perhaps the biggest surprise therein was that there was a National Association for Information Destruction.
The NAID -- not to be confused with the National Association of Interior Designers (they get teased about that a lot) -- titled the press release "Shredding is Good!"
"NAID wants to remind the media, as well as the citizens of the United States, that the overwhelming majority of document destruction that takes place on a daily basis is done so quite appropriately and for the cause of good."
If the tone sounded defensive, that's because it was. Once again shredding was being maligned, this time in connection with the Enron scandal and allegations that either the energy trading company or its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, had wrongly shredded documents to cover up fraudulent bookkeeping.
"Sure, there is a sensational side of it -- when people are using it to hide things. But to think that, if there's shredding going on, there must be something wrong, couldn't be farther from the truth," said Robert Johnson, who ran his own shredding business before founding the trade organization nine years ago. "Shredding is the responsible thing to do when you're discarding information."
Would you want your medical test results blowing in the wind down the sidewalk? Your income tax return sitting intact in a downtown Dumpster? (Fig. 5) Of course not.
Some states -- Wisconsin in 1999, then later California -- have passed laws requiring companies to destroy clients' medical and financial records when disposing of them.
Nationally there are more than 500 companies, up from 25 in the early '80s, willing to help with that, most of which have the word "shred" in their name: Docushred, Infoshred, Ecoshred, Datashred, Allshred, to name just a few.
Some grind up documents on site, others haul them back to plants for shredding. Usually, their employees are bonded, and they provide clients with a "certificate of destruction." The residue is then sold to recyclers, ending up as, among other things, paper towels and toilet paper.
"You ain't got no bodies in here, do you?" an employee of one such firm joked with clients last week outside a Baltimore accounting office. He was busy feeding income tax returns by the bagful into the powerful jaws of his truck's shredder, capable of chewing up 1,200 pounds an hour.
For companies who prefer to shred their own, as well as individual homeowners, there are plenty of machines to choose from. The sales of shredding machines nationally grew from about 100,000 in 1990 to about 8 million in 2000.
"It's an insurance policy. It helps protect what is yours," said Vinnie Delvecchio, co-owner of Whitaker Bros. in Rockville, the largest distributor of shredders to U.S. government offices. Delvecchio is upfront about his company having sold the shredders that were used in both Watergate and Iran-Contra. But he's tighter-lipped about current clients.
"In our business, you don't kiss and tell," he said. "If you do, you don't get a second date."
What have we learned?
We have learned that, as with cholesterol, there is good shredding and bad shredding.
We have learned that our garbage is not "our" garbage, to be careful what we throw away.
And we have learned that shredders, unlike many other implements of destruction / protection, get little respect from historians.
The infamous Watergate shredder, for instance, was spurned by the Smithsonian Institution. In 1984, Whitaker Bros., which had bought the shredder back from President Nixon's re-election committee, tried to sell it to the Smithsonian. Then they tried to donate it. Both offers were rejected. The shredder now sits, shrink-wrapped, in the Maryland company's secondary warehouse.
The Ehinger shredder -- the 1938 model his daughter brought over from Germany -- was displayed at the National Office Machine Dealer's Association museum in Kansas City. But the museum was dismantled so that organization (now called the Business Technology Association) could lease out the space. So the Ehinger shredder now sits, plaqueless, on the showroom floor at ECCO Business Systems in mid-town Manhattan.
As for A.A. Low's prototype shredder, it is unclear whatever became of it.
As for man, he continues -- as he has since assuming the upright position -- his roundabout, mistake-peppered existence. He now has not just machines, but an entire industry that turns sheets of paper into tiny strips, much like those strips of reed used long ago, in ancient Egyptian times, to fashion a single piece of papyrus.
He is, in a way, back where he started. (Fig. 6)
And it only took 6,000 years.
Sun editorial assistant Karin Remesch and Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.