Shredding for our future: a history of man’s struggle to create and destroy

Papyrus, bill of sale for a donkey.

Papyrus, bill of sale for a donkey.

They say that man is the animal that creates. I say that man is the animal that can create and will destroy. And sometimes a creation’s purpose could be destruction. This is the case with shredding machines.

The year was 2.560 B.C. when man in his desperate search for means of expression created papyrus. Before that his irresistible urge to express himself manifested mostly on cave walls or clay tablets or other difficult to impossible to shred mediums. Papyrus changed all of that. [1]

With the invention of papyrus, man felt for the first time in history the need to rip into pieces something that he created to imprint certain information. Why? Because for the first time in history, man could do it; Papyrus made possible such action.

This first papyrus shred to pieces could be of a painting or a poem gone horribly wrong. Or of symbols that articulated emotions or desires for the future. It could be a list of financial assets or a text of religious significance. The owner of the papyrus could have destroyed it. Or maybe it was a thief. Or it might even be a jealous wife or a loyal servant. We don’t know why or who did it but we can be certain that someone took the decision to destroy. There could be a reason for doing it or there could be no specific reason at all but it was done by someone.

And after the first man, there were many more that followed a similar course of action because they could do it. The Chinese discovered paper [2], and as centuries passed, humans kept finding new reasons to destroy.

Early wooden printing press, 1568

Early wooden printing press, 1568

Gutenberg [3] discovered the printing machine and the mass paper media was born. Reading was not anymore a privilege of the aristocracy.

In 1806 a man called Henry Fourdinier created the Fourdinier machine. These were steam-driven papermaking machines that could make paper with fibres from wood pulp. Great quantities of paper could be made in great speed. [4]

By the 20th century paper was an everyday commodity, part of every human activity. Common people used it, companies used it, and government agencies used it too.

And then, in 1909, almost 6.000 years after the invention of papyrus, 103 years after the creation of the Fourdinier machine, a man from the United Stated of America called Abbot Augustus Low had a simple but glorious idea. In a world dominated by paper, he had a simple idea. He thought: “What if I created a machine that shreds paper?” And thus, he filed a patent for what he called a “waste – paper receptable”. The first shredding machine came into existence. A creation meant to destroy. It could change the course of history. It did!

Papermaking machine

Papermaking machine

According to him, his invention related “to the provision of improved means 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”.

The invention consisted “of a receptacle having a cutting or cancelling device interposed between it and a receiving hopper, whereby the papers are disintegrated and rendered useless as such before they enter the body of the receptacle, in which latter the fragments are stored temporarily in a suitable bag to be removed from time to time for the disposition of the waste”.

Waste Paper Receptacle, 1909

Waste Paper Receptacle, 1909

Augustus didn’t just invent the device but knew of the advantages it could hold for banks and other organizations “where the practical destruction of correspondence, memoranda, liquidated bonds, accounts, books, and the like is a desideratum […] since the particles of paper are useless for identification, information, or fraudulent purposes of any character” [5]

However, not many sh(a)red his enthusiasm. And as it is often the case with all those we come to admire as genius, it took society quite a long time to understand the necessity of such a device. [6]

In reality, there was no demand for a paper shredder; no market. And how could there be such a demand when most of the people didn’t feel the need to shred their documents using a device. And while it was probable that US intelligence agencies might have understood its importance the simple fact is that the concept of identity theft or data protection was not very common; not common enough for the “common people”. [7]

Now, all this has changed. In the 21st century, “information destruction” is a multi-billion business and shredding machines are at the centre of it.

Shredding machines have evolved and are becoming more and more sophisticated. They will destroy from paper to DVDs and CDS or hard drives. Anything that can hold data of any kind can be destroyed and recycled. [8]

Shredding Machine

Shredding Machine

Everyone is using them. From small offices to big corporations, from government agencies, to schools and hospitals; in some countries it has become a requirement of the law to shred specific documents using shredding machines. [9]

Companies make shredding machines and sell them. Other companies are going mobile, arriving at an organization’s premises with trucks equipped with machines that chew and spit piles of paper. They destroy data that are not meant to be seen by the general public, data that should not fall in the wrong hands. Doctors, spies, everyone uses them.

From the papyrus to the computer and the world of internet, creation goes hand in hand with destruction. In reality, evolution was also the evolution of the means of destruction; they seem somehow interrelated, as if they complement each other. It is human somehow. This is how we evolve; this is how we express ourselves more effectively. We create paper to destroy it; we share information to delete it; we decide what to keep; we shred for our future. We evolve.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ts%27ai_Lun
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Fourdrinier
  5. http://www.google.com/patents/US929960?dq=ininventor:%22ABBOT+AUGUSTUS+LOW%22
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbot_Augustus_Low
  7. http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/06/26/declassified-govt-report-details-decades-nsa-computer-spying/
  8. http://www.ironmountain.co.uk/services/secure-shredding
  9. http://www.cpni.gov.uk/Documents/Publications/2013/2013062-secure-destruction-sensitive-information.pdf