Inventions Ahead of Their Time: The Paper Shredder
CREDIT: Muffet, via Flickr
Inventions can spawn good or evil, depending on how they get used. But some creationscounterfeit machines and whoopee cushions, to count a fewtrend heavily toward the latter, enabling the naughty much more than the nice. The paper shredder fits into this category. Sure, someone somewhere could use it to shred the newspaper bedding in a basket full of puppies, but this isn't the image that normally springs to mind.
We are far more likely to imagine nefarious cover-up jobsfrantic Enron executives converting evidence into Christmas confetti, and the like. Indeed, the first 15 minutes of fame for the paper shredder came during the Watergate scandal in 1972, when appointees up and down Nixon's chain of command were desperately covering the tracks of their misdeeds. Before that, few people had even heard of a paper shredder, despite the fact that it had been around for years.
In 1909, a New Yorker named Abbot Low filed a patent for a "waste-paper receptacle." The bottom of the device was just a trashcan. But over it, Abbot constructed a shoot that pulled paper in and fed it through a system of circulating blades. Although the name played down the utility of his invention, Abbot clearly knew what it was good for, recommending it to people who wished to render their documents "unavailable or un-intelligible for re-use or for information."
Abbot seems to have been more interested in the bin than the shredder, though. A year later he patented a trashcan that functioned part-time as a hat rack. By 1911 he was patenting submarine parts, apparently having forgotten about the shredder.
The man that most companies now honor as the inventor of the paper shredder was named Adolf Ehinger. Though evidence of his life is lacking, he lives in myth as a German citizen who was looking for a way to destroy sensitive anti-Nazi documents . Apparently it clicked one day as he was watching a pasta maker cut through the dough. Ehinger designed a similar device for paper and began selling it through a company that would eventually fold into Krug & Priester.
Other companies popped up, but the paper shredder remained an exclusive weapon of mass destruction, found mostly in government agencies.
In 1972, Nixon showed the world how to really use a paper shredder, and since then the industry has been on a tear.