How Paper Shredders Work

Abbot, Adolf and Information Destruction

Although we can't say when people started needing paper shredders for getting rid of important secrets, we do know that in 1909 Abbot Augustus Low filed the first United States patent for a shredder-like "waste-paper receptacle." He stated the receptacle's purpose was "for disposing of waste paper and is designed more particularly for use in offices and other places where not only the collection and storage of waste paper is desirable, but also its cancellation or mutilation in such manner as to render it unavailable or unintelligible for re-use or for information" [source: Low].

Using a cutting or grinding device, Low's invention ensured that papers would be sliced to bits before they fell into the bin. He gave provisions for operating it either by electric motor or by a crank. He even made sure to mention his automatic stop system for the motor: Two electric switches completed a circuit when paper was fed through, enabling the motor to run. When the paper ran out, the second switch broke the circuit and the device stopped.


So we all started using paper shredders posthaste in 1909, right? Nope, not at all. Although Double-A Low (not his real nickname) was the genius behind it, the machine was never marketed to a large audience, and the nascent paper-shredding industry sat in the wings, methodically plotting its eventual domination of every accountant's office.

Around 1935, German toolmaker Adolf Ehinger applied for a German patent on his version of the paper shredder. Ehinger was a better businessman than Low, though, and during the post-World War II era, found quite the niche marketing the shredders to the usual suspects: government, military and financial institutions.

Can you guess what big, global event that spawned countless spy films, conspiracy at the highest (and lowest) level, and general shady, secret dealings eventually made the paper shredder the new must-have gift for any government operative? That's right, it was the Cold War of the 1950s when the devices really started being marketed aggressively. How else would you write the feverish climax of a classic espionage novel if there weren't some papers to be frantically shred, just as the Russians were trying to knock down the door?

We'll check back to see how the shredder flourished in more recent popular culture and history, but first let's take a look at how shredders actually work. (And then destroy all evidence we did.)