Today, traditional filing cabinets are slowly being phased out in favor of document management software. In industries like medical research, legal, and insurance, electronic filing systems have become hugely important not only for document organization, but also for collaboration, protection of sensitive information, document retention, and government compliance. Ironically enough, the man who originally dreamed up the idea for the traditional vertical filing cabinet spent most of his life working in insurance—one of the industries that, today, is pushing the trend that is rendering his invention obsolete.
Introducing Edwin G. Seibels
The man in question was Edwin G. Seibels, born on September 12, 1866, and died December 21, 1954. A graduate of South Carolina College—which went on to become the University of South Carolina—Seibels was around the world of insurance even before he graduated. Edwin’s family owned an insurance firm in Columbia, South Carolina, called E.W. Seibels & Son, and he worked there as a teenager. His family also owned a cotton plantation, and Seibels learned the ins and outs of cotton crops as a child—skills he would use to his financial advantage later in life.
Also later in life, Edwin G. Seibels served as the president of another Columbia-based firm—the South Carolina Insurance Company, which was organized in 1910. He also ran for and won a seat in public office, becoming an elected member of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1909.
The Invention of the Vertical Filing Cabinet
While Edwin G. Seibels had his hands in cotton export, insurance, and politics, though, he always harbored aspirations of becoming an inventor. Indeed, more than a decade before Seibels ran for public office or helped launch the South Carolina Insurance Company, he came up with a revolutionary design concept for organizing vertical files. That concept would become the filing cabinet that we still know and use today; an invention that, despite Seibels’ multifaceted professional life, remains his biggest accomplishment.
Though he is credited as the inventor of the vertical filing cabinet today, Seibels didn’t get that kind of recognition at the turn of the 20th century, when he first applied for a patent. At the time, Seibels’ idea—of storing envelopes upright in drawers—was a revolutionary way of thinking about company filing systems. In fact, before Seibels dreamed up the vertical filing cabinet, most businesses filed their documents using walls covered in small pigeonholes. To be stored in these small holes, envelopes or papers had to be folded or rolled up and inserted into the holes individually. Not only did the system essentially require businesses to crumple up their files to store them, but it also made individual documents virtually impossible to find. It was, to be blunt, a laughably inefficient system.
Still, when Seibels thought up the concept for storing vertical files, without having to fold or damage the documents, his achievement was called an “idea” rather than an invention. He had worked with a company to build filing boxes based on his specs but was told that the boxes themselves couldn’t be patented. “I overlooked the part played in setting the envelopes upright, and separating them by guide cards,” he would say later. “This device, of course, could have been patented.”
Because he was never able to secure a patent for his vertical filing cabinet system, Edwin Seibels was never able to monetize the concept that could have made him rich. Eventually, he would be recognized for his “pioneer work” in the world of document management, and one of his original filing boxes—built by the Globe Wernicke Company of Cincinnati—has been on display at the Smithsonian since 1941. In other words, even if he never got rich off his invention, Edwin Seibels did change the world with it.
The Next Stage of Document Management
Sometimes, however, to make way for the future, old innovations need to be swept aside. When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, the device essentially rendered the standalone iPod mp3 player obsolete for the majority of users. Not only did the iPhone come with an mp3 feature, but it was also capable of making calls, sending texts, browsing the web, playing games, running apps, and more. Apple had to sweep aside its previous high-water mark invention to build the foundations for today’s smartphone market.
Similarly, Edwin Seibels’ invention has been rendered obsolete by the advent of document management software. When Seibels first thought up the idea of storing files vertically in a drawer, instead of folding them up and slotting them into pigeonholes, he was replacing an inefficient system with a more intuitive and effective one. Today, document management systems have turned Seibels’ vertical filing cabinet into a modern equivalent of the pigeonhole system. When technology makes it possible to store, search, share, secure, and collaborate on files digitally, it no longer makes sense to use vertical filing cabinets.
However, even if the vertical filing cabinet has to be swept aside to make way for a smarter and more efficient digital option, we can at the very least still be grateful for Edwin G. Seibels and his accomplishments. Who knows, without this insurance man from South Carolina, we might still be folding up our files and trying to cram them into pigeonholes!