The Compleat History of SHREDDING

Cover Story

February 10, 2002|By John Woestendiek | By John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

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.

Chapter One

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."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.