The Evolution of the Paper Shredder and How Nazi Germany Almost Had One

Can you imagine nefarious international regimes of yore having paper shredders decades ago? Had Nazi Germany managed to have paper shredders at the level they are today, some of the evidence in print of what the Third Reich’s horrific plans were would have been lost to history–with perhaps the Nuremberg Trials being more complicated in convicting certain individuals. Fortunately, fate stepped in and the Nazi era of Germany didn’t have paper shredders available, despite one man there who filed a patent for a crude design right during the reign of Hitler in 1935. That didn’t stop some former Nazis from attempting to shred documents once the electric version of this shredder hit the German market in the late 1950’s.

At least we can safely say that America was the first country to get a patent for a paper shredder. In fact, we beat Germany by 25 years on getting a patent for one, even though we didn’t produce one for years after the fact. Consider that a blessing in the case of Germany if you’re familiar with the things they were working on that almost came to be, including an atomic bomb. But we still have to give credit to Germany for creating the cross-cut shredder that we continue to use today through a company that’s directly connected to that above-mentioned German man who happened to be a former Nazi.

Yes, welcome to another ironic history class where one of the world’s most evil regimes happened to be connected to a device that every country uses today to keep our own privacy.

As mentioned, though, an American man by the name of Abbot Augustus Low managed to create the concept of a device that could shred paper in 1909. It’s odd that America didn’t manage to manufacture it considering it was during the time when we were progressing in industry and technology. Perhaps there was a determination that a paper shredder wouldn’t be in high demand by the general populace. And, that was likely more than accurate when many people didn’t feel they needed to shred any of their documents. Back in the first half of the 20th century, the concept of identity theft wasn’t even a glint in the most evil person’s eye yet. That’s not to say that our first government spy networks didn’t sift through the garbage of a particular suspect in an important legal case. Overall, though, it was rare.

When that above-mentioned former Nazi (the very Nazi-like name of Adolf Ehinger) managed to market his cross-cut shredder in Germany during their rebuilding phase following WWII, government agencies salivated at the potential of being able to shred documents to avoid being caught red-handed doing shady business practices. Even many German businesses decided to use Ehinger’s shredder. Originally, the design involved turning a manual crank to shred the paper, and Ehinger actually used it personally to supposedly shred Nazi documents later that incriminated him. He made the device with an electric motor by the time he started marketing it widely in the late 1950’s–hence already providing that familiar electric shredding sound we’ve all heard millions of times in our homes and in offices.

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It’s quite telling that we were free of worry for decades in America from people invading our garbage and getting information on us from unshredded documents. As a little-discussed piece of Supreme Court history, many people probably have no idea that a particular case in the Court that revised our Fourth Amendment pretty much brought on a deluge of people buying paper shredders. You can also give a nod to one other person for getting a particular brand into people’s home offices: Col. Oliver North.

1984 was the first year that people started getting paper shredders into the privacy of their homes after years of corporations and other businesses using them. When the Supreme Court decided that year that our Fourth Amendment was not out of the bounds of law enforcement sifting through a person’s garbage to investigate suspected criminals, sales of paper shredders skyrocketed. Of course, this was still a long time before identity theft became prevalent, yet it was the first example of people fearing our government during a year when the irony of “1984” seems all the more eerie.

In retrospect, it may give some a chill of guilt now to use a paper shredder when we connect its history to shady characters trying to hide their tracks. While Col. Oliver North was an obvious patsy in the Iran-Contra scandals during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, his off-the-cuff comment in 1987 about a particular brand of shredder that he used to shred documents on the case led to a run of that model in stores a week later. It was a more thorough shredder in the cross-cut variety, which became standard in many a home by the 90’s.

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Now that likely every household in the world has at least one cross-cut or confetti paper shredder (among other thorough types), what are we to make of more recent technological developments where you can reconstruct shredded documents using digital software? Is it possible software like that will become as widely available as digital software has for so many to use to make believable videos of UFO’s and other strange phenomena? Right now, only government agencies use these sophisticated programs to do “unshredding” of important documents–some from recent history.

Companies here and there may start sweating a bit now that digital technology allows shredded strips of paper to be scanned and re-assembled so they can look like perfect documents again. Imagine software like that on your local Best Buy software shelf in about five years. If that happens (and you know a company will see a huge market for it eventually), shredding may have to go by the wayside and instead go back to relying on fire to burn documents. At least that’s already provided with some of the public shredding services offered to people today.

Maybe in the end, our prehistoric ancestors who discovered fire will be given credit for being the ultimate way to keep our discarded documents out of the reach of human hands or a digital scanner. It’s already cringe-inducing turning on a shredder and knowing it was the sound made when a former Nazi discarded personal documents that proved his despicable acts…

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