It’s hard to believe that things haven’t always been the way they are today. That they are thus because someone made them thus. Let’s take paper shredders as an example. Every time you use one, you do so somewhat unconsciously. Have you ever wondered where this fantastic machine came from?
No doubt it feels ageless. But that’s a misleading instinct. The paper shredder is a fairly new invention. Barely a century old, in fact. Who was the man that conceived it? Our questions take us, first to ancient Egypt where the art of writing on paper was first invented. After that, we will look at the activities of two individuals during the first half of the twentieth century.
Ancient Egypt to the early twentieth century
The ancient Egyptians did not invent paper shredder. They developed a form of paper known as papyrus. No doubt, even in that era, people made mistakes when writing. I am also confident that sensitive knowledge, such as messages meant only for the pharaoh and his most trusted ministers, was also recorded in those days.
From ancient Egypt to the early nineteenth century, paper shredders were non-existent. That is not to say documents were not destroyed. In those days, people manually tore paper into pieces. And if you wanted a more elegant and permanent method, you threw the document into a flame and watched it turn to ash.
Abbot Augustus Low: August 3, 1909
Our inquiry snatches us from ancient Egypt and drops us in the early twentieth century, 1909 to be precise. That is the year an entrepreneur from New York known as Abbot Augustus Low filed a patent for what he called a “waste paper receptacle”.
What manner of man was he? Abbot Augustus Low was an entrepreneur and inventor who lived in upstate New York, an area known as Horseshoe, on the Western shore of Horseshoe Lake which is in Piercefield, New York.
In his lifetime, he filed for several patents, for instance, a method of preserving maple sugar, and an exhaust system.
On the 2nd of February, 1909, Low filed for a patent, proposing a novel, improved technique for the disposal of waste paper. The item received the U.S. patent number 929,960 on the 3rd of August, 1909.
However, though he had the patent, the invention never materialized. And would not until 26 years later when a German inventor afraid of Nazi totalitarianism stepped in.
Adolf Ehinger: 1935
We do not know much about Adolf Ehinger, but we know he was not a Nazi sympathizer. In a dubious way, I guess we have Hitler to thank for the paper shredder. Ehinger was a simple man who had a shop in Balingen, Germany, where he made and repaired tools and small machines.
On the sly, however, Ehinger was printing anti-Nazi propaganda. Until the day someone saw some of these materials in his trash can and threatened to take him forward. Shaken, Adolf Ehinger’s entrepreneurial mind began to search for a solution to this problem. In what way could one ensure that discarded in the garbage can could not be retrieved and read by one’s enemies?
I suppose we are lucky he didn’t consider the simple solution of throwing his illegal anti-Nazi literature in the fire. Instead, he tinkered with a pasta maker he got from his kitchen, using it to build the first shredder (a primitive contraption, compared to modern, sophisticated devices). The year was 1935 (four years before World War II began).
Over time, he improved the design. The first shredder was a hand-crank affair, having been made from a hand-crank pasta maker. But Ehinger would later convert to using an electric motor. He also set up a company, EBA Maschinenfabrik, with which he manufactured the world’s first cross-cut paper shredders. That was in 1959.
Ironically, while he had originally invented the paper shredder in a bid to evade the invasive arm of the German government during Hitler’s regime, Adolf Ehinger would later market his products to government agencies as well as to financial institutions.
His company lives on to this day in Balingen, Germany. It changed its name to EBA Krug & Priester GmbH & Co.
The story of the paper shredder’s invention is straight and simple. It is the narrative of two inventors. One had a bright idea but didn’t act on it. The other had a problem. The problem constrained him to find a solution. Then he had a bright idea. And to our eternal gratitude, he acted on it.