Today in Tedium: Paper is one of our most important materials—and one of our most fragile. It can mean nothing or define everything. In the right circumstances, it can last for centuries, maybe even beyond. But it is susceptible to fire, wear and tear, even an errant pair of scissors. And it can all too easily be shredded. Ah yes, shredding. It’s something that has only existed in its modern form for just under 100 years, and it’s probably destroyed a lot of sensitive documents in the meantime. And it’s always hungry for more. Today’s Tedium ponders the history and evolution of the paper shredder. — Ernie @ Tedium
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Before we talk about shredders, let’s spend a moment talking about how paper is recycled, because it has to be destroyed there, too
If you’ve read Tedium pieces in the past talking about the way certain things have been invented, you probably know that our M.O. is generally that we try looking for the roots of things where possible.
And honestly, paper is something that we’ve dug into a few times over the years, both in napkin form and packaging form. We’ve even done a deep dive into the way that some types of paper, like newsprint, tend to yellow.
And in many ways, before we talk about the paper shredder, we need to take a detour into the world of recycling, where a man named Matthias Koops put in much of the hard work to develop processes for taking paper and reusing it, and even went to the length of writing an extended historical account of how information was conveyed and stored before the invention of modern-day paper.
But his book isn’t just about printing on paper—the book itself is actually partly printed on straw, essentially to prove it could be done to the British monarch of the period, King George III. From the intro:
Your majesty, having been most graciously pleased to grant me patents for extracting printing and writing ink from waste Paper, by reducing it to a pulp, and converting it into white Paper fit for writing, printing, and for other purposes; and also for manufacturing paper from straw, hay, thistles, waste and. refuse of hemp and flax, and different kinds of Wood and Bark, fit for printing, and almost all other purposes for which paper is used;
And your majesty having in September last year condescended to permit me to lay at your feet the first useful paper which has ever been made from straw alone without any addition of rags; the gracious reception it has met with from your majesty the approbation of the public, and the encouragement which the Legislature has given me by passing an Act of Parliament in its favour has engaged me to reprint these lines on paper manufactured from Straw solely in a more improved state, although not yet brought to such a state of perfection as it will be made in a regular manufacture, which must be entirely constructed for such purpose and which I most humbly flatter myself and will now much sooner be established by the indulgence which your majesty’s Parliament has granted me. This new essay proves there cannot be any doubts that good and useful paper can be made from straw alone.
As you can tell, he was very excited about his straw paper, which is notable because it removed rags from the process, but it turns out that the real innovation he was responsible for was taking the pulp of existing paper, produced from wood and other sources, removing the ink from the paper, and reconstituting it as paper once again. In other words, he had developed the process of paper recycling. In many ways, the later innovations in paper shredding and the prior innovations in paper recycling would come together to create a pipeline for paper to be destroyed and made whole once again.
As noted, he patented this process, in a patent titled “Extracting printing and writing ink from printed and written paper,” which involved removing the ink, washing and boiling the paper, chemically treating and salting the paper, and then pulping the final result which is then turned into paper once again.
Unfortunately, the historic value of Koops’ work did not translate to sustained success for his paper manufacturer, which was sold out from under him in 1804.
In many ways, the reason why Koops matters in this discussion is that the recycling of paper is the destruction of the material on the paper, which allows that paper to be made anew. And I think that when we discuss the shredding of paper, that’s what we’re really getting at—the destruction of records.
The nice thing about shredding is that the paper can ultimately be reconstituted, after all, something that can’t be said for burning.
The year that Abbot Augustus Low, a serial inventor based in Horseshoe, New York, first received a patent for a waste-paper receptacle, a device which is believed to be the first paper shredder. Unfortunately for Low, he died just two years after first receiving the patent, which meant that he was unable to act upon the shredder he created. Low was a very active inventor in his lifetime—it is said that only Thomas Edison had more patents than he did.
Who invented the modern industrial paper shredder—the anti-fascist German or the lawsuit-happy American?
As we’ve written in the past, one of the great shames of World War II is the way in that it led important innovations to linger on the sidelines because of the global conflict. For instance, we could have had the Curta calculator years before we actually did, and there is a strong argument that the postwar innovation boom that we saw was not a result of new technologies emerging during the war, but because of inventors biding their time while the world sorted itself out.
But even in this context, Adolf Ehinger’s 1935 development of a paper shredder stands out. Developed in a period before global conflict had broken out once again, but in many ways informed by what was coming, the German inventor had developed a device that allowed him to destroy documents from his print shop that he did not want others to read to be destroyed. And it turned out that Ehinger was making some of those things—particularly anti-Nazi propaganda, which he had been producing before the war.
“He was not a friend of the Third Reich,” said Renate Ehinger, his daughter-in-law, in a 2002 interview with the Baltimore Sun (from a very well-done history on paper-shredding that I recommend you check out; here’s part two). “He thought, when it gets to the point you can’t write what you want to write, it was time to do something.”
The aha moment for Ehinger came not from the factory, but the kitchen. He was inspired to develop his device by a German noodle-maker which could cut dough into tiny strips. Applied to sheets of paper rather than spätzle, it proved an effective way to destroy information.
This was clearly a valuable device for wartime, but it was one that would not reach most audiences until after that point, though there were some examples of companies developing similar things. It is claimed, for example, that the Silver Manufacturing Company, based in Ohio, had started developing an industrial paper shredder starting in the 1930s.
But there were other examples as well. In this content, it’s worth discussing the work of a Seattle man named Louie J. Antonsen. In 1929, he was granted a patent for a paper shredding machine for producing paper excelsior, or shreddings, which are often used for packing materials. From the patent filing:
My invention relates to improvements in shredding machines of the particular type adapted to manufacture paper excelsior from waste paper.
It has been customary heretofore to cut the paper into narrow strips or shreds by means of a machine consisting essentially of a pair of oppositely rotating, parallel shafts on which are mounted cutting disks inter meshed and in facial contact. The narrow paper strips cut by such machines have straight, sharp edges as the result of the true shearing action of the rotating cutters. In handling excelsior made of these strips, the sharp edges often cut the hands of the packer. Furthermore, the strips are so uniform and straight that such excelsior is found to pack and is less resilient than the wood excelsior.
Machines of the type mentioned have a comparatively small production capacity because of the inherent limitations in the cutting process, and in the method used to feed the material to the cutters. The object of my invention is to provide improved means for the shredding of paper whereby the same is torn, instead of out, into narrow strips or shreds, producing thereby irregular feathery edges.
Antonsen’s patent filings, which also include a filing for a paper shredding machine, are notable because they were mechanized and more industrial in nature, predate Ehinger’s hand-crank invention, and gave Antonsen the right to sue over unauthorized uses, which he appears to have been very happy to do.
For example, in 1932, he ended up suing a Spokane waste-paper company that ended up developing a machine like his while trying to cut Antonsen out of his royalties. Antonsen actually managed to get a permanent injunction against the factory.
That wasn’t the only lawsuit he was involved in, either—he also was involved in a lawsuit involving C.C. Hedrick, the founder of a company called the Paper, Excelsior and Pad Co., also suing for patent violations. Just one problem—that company was founded in 1927, and Hedrick’s machine had been constructed in 1923, well before Antonsen was granted his patents. That meant that a 1937 appeals court decision simply did not go his way.
Antonsen has been written out of the history of shredding, despite clearly having developed a machine close to modern-day industrial shredding, which means that there are a whole bunch of shredding companies who have touched on this history for content marketing purposes that are now incomplete.
And to be clear, paper-shredders were not like these super-obscure things before World War II kicked off. In the Los Angeles area, for example, Goodwill Industries installed a paper-shredding machine that specialized in old newspapers, as a way to raise money for its community, which could then resell the clippings as packaging paper for a reported $1,500 a month ($32,000 in today’s money).
But no matter who invented the modern-day paper shredder, Ehinger’s story remains a compelling one, in large part because he developed his device to destroy information, not just create a manufacturing byproduct. A few years after World War II, Ehinger attempted to develop his device anew, this time with a more electrified result. A German patent given to Ehinger in 1951 described an industrial machine that allowed more types of paper to be destroyed at sizes larger than individual sheets, in a more automated form through the use of a conveyor belt. From the patent filing:
These known devices have the disadvantage that the paper must be fed by hand and that for this reason the inlet opening to the cutting unit is kept relatively small, so that only plate-shaped material can be fed in for shredding, such as plastic plates and strips or sheets of paper, but no boxes or crumpled paper, for example.
Eventually, his work would lead to the first cross-cut paper shredder in 1959, and his company would develop into the modern-day Krug & Priester, a document-shredder manufacturer that is still active today.
As the Sun’s John Woestendiek wrote in 2002, context is everything here, and Ehinger’s context was valuable: “But as Adolf Ehinger intended, and as we will come to understand later 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.”
I can in some sense see why Ehinger’s version of the story is the one that stuck, even though there is prior evidence that suggests he was someone who simply had a similar idea to other people around the same time. It reflects all that is good about paper-shredding—the desire for privacy, the protective nature of destroying materials—rather than that of Antonsen, someone who got his patent and immediately started suing anyone who violated it.
But, as a note to content marketing firms: Do a deep dive into history when you write your pieces, because you might be leaving some deserving creators out of the conversation.
The modern standard for the destruction of data carriers, such as paper, as laid out by the German Institute for Standardization. This standard suggests potential sizes at which paper can be chopped up into little pieces, with seven specific levels, the largest being 12 millimeters, with a maximum particle surface size of 2,000 square millimeters, and the smallest being 1 millimeters, with a maximum particle surface size of 5 square millimeters. The level are in reference to the increased need for security. If you are running a spy agency, you likely want the highest level of security.
Five things that you should know about recycling shredded paper
- Most curbside recyclers aren’t in a good position to pick it up. According to TreeHugger, curbside recyclers tend to prefer paper in larger pieces are it requires a different process to be recycled. You may want to check before you put a bunch of it out.
- A great way to not get shredded paper recycled is to package it loosely. The American Forest & Paper Association suggests packaging it in a box if you do put it on the curb.
- The smaller the shreds are, the harder they are to recycle. As noted by the website Green Matters, small pieces tend to get caught in recycling machines, causing more trouble than they’re worth. “Unlike the recycled paper you made in your grade school days, paper mills need long strands of paper that will catch and stick to their screens,” the website states. “Small pieces, i.e. shreds, are likely to just pass through and create a clumpy mess.” So if you’re trying to recycle confidential documents, perhaps consider another option.
- Shredding everything may not be the best idea. The American Forest & Paper Association explains that if we were to shred everything, it would likely lead to less paper overall getting recycled. Instead, the association suggests limiting your use of shredders to highly sensitive information like pay stubs, tax forms, or medical records. “If you only shred paper with sensitive information, you can protect your privacy while extending the useful life of paper,” the association states.
- Can’t recycle? Consider composting. This suggestion comes from TreeHugger, which notes that this is a great option for most types of paper. “The exception is glossy magazine-style paper and any paper that contains toxic ink, which should not be composted,” the website notes.
The year that the company Primera Technology first began selling the DS360 Disc Shredder, a tool that gained much interest for the novel fact that it could destroy compact discs, DVDs, and other plastic platters in a matter of seconds. “They’re solid-iron shredding teeth, as opposed to the pressed-steel ones inside most paper shredders,” the company’s Mark Strobel told MTV News in 2005. “It will grind a CD down to a shiny mixture of plastic and reflective record material. It makes for shiny confetti. But you probably wouldn’t want to throw it at anybody—it’s kind of sharp.”
The thing that’s fascinating about paper shredding is not just that it’s a purely destructive element of paper, but that destruction has really been a part of the manufacturing of paper for hundreds of years.
Shredding has gained a reputation as something people do when they want to cover their tracks—not helped by the fact that shredders were generally popular with governments decades before the technology reached normal consumers, and also not helped that one of the most famous users of paper-shredders was Enron and its accounting partner Arthur Andersen.
But there is something about it that deserves value, especially in an era when privacy is becoming a more front-and-center discussion. When John Woestendiek wrote his history of paper-shredders for the Baltimore Sun more than 20 years ago, his reasoning as to why paper shredders were important for normal people was hard to argue with.
“Would you want your medical test results blowing in the wind down the sidewalk? Your income tax return sitting intact in a downtown Dumpster? Of course not,” he wrote.
In an era when many of the documents that might have once piled up in an office now sit on an encrypted server on the cloud or on a backup drive behind lock and key, it makes less sense than ever to just let random documents sit around in paper form, especially since that information could be used to steal your identity.
Did Adolf Ehinger invent this? Probably not. But he was probably the first person who knew exactly why it was useful for the regular person.
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