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).