The invention of paper revolutionised society. We use paper to create bank notes, newspapers, bandages, books; even if we don’t always notice it, it’s an integral part of our everyday lives.
So, what are the origins of the invention of papermaking that changed civilisation so drastically? This versatile material has an in depth and fascinating history that goes back as far as the 2nd century.
We go right to the beginning of this creation to find out more about how it became one of humankind’s most important inventions.
Who Invented Paper?
It’s difficult to give one answer to this question since the invention of paper has been influenced in so many ways to produce the final product we have today.
The word ‘paper’ derives from the Ancient Egyptian writing material called papyrus, which was woven from the stems of the papyrus plant. This material was being produced in Egypt and Greece as early as 3000 BC.
However, many define the origins of standardised, mass-produced paper to China in 105 AD.
For a more thorough answer and look at the evolution of paper, we’ve created a timeline following its key developments.
Pre 105 AD: Primitive Writing Materials
Writing was established long before the invention of paper, so humans had to find materials to either carve into or apply ink onto.
Natural resources such as clay, silk, wood, stone and leather were utilised. The Egyptians also used parchment paper. This was made from animal skins, usually sheep or cow. The skin was soaked the skin in water with chalk or flour and then salt was added to give it a smooth surface to write on.
However, in China, many early writings were scribed on long strips of bamboo with ink that was then bound together to make books.
Source: Peter Griffins
105 AD: China’s Standardised Paper
Although these primitive writing materials existed, they weren’t the most convenient solution. These were often very heavy or, in the case of silk, very expensive.
It was in 2nd century China that Ts’ai Lun, a Chinese court official of the Han Dynasty, documented the first modern method of papermaking in China. It seems Ts'ai Lun made the paper by mixing finely chopped mulberry bark and cotton/hemp rags with water, mashing it flat, and pressing out the water and drying it in the sun.
Over time, these papermakers experimented and produced a number of different types of paper: sized, coated and dyed. These developments significantly helped China advance as a country. By the 10th century, the Chinese had introduced paper money to their monetary system.
Because of China’s secrecy over their production techniques, other countries throughout Central Asia and the Middle East began didn’t begin setting up paper mills until around the 600 ADs.
13th Century: European Paper
Eventually, the papermaking in China arrived in Europe. Italy invested the most within the industry and actually implemented improvements upon the Arabian technique they’d learned from.
It’s believed that when Italian traveller Marco Polo came back from his exploration in China, he reported their ingenious paper currency. This caught on in some European countries such as Spain who began using paper notes in 1483.
17th & 18th Century: Innovation & White Paper
The Europeans’ papermaking technology significantly advanced throughout these two centuries. More mechanical solutions were being introduced to replace hand and manual labour, such as Nicolas-Louis Robert’s flat-screen papermaking machine.
Robert’s design was further developed in England, and his invention became the core of the Fourdrinier machine: the basis for modern papermaking today.
To add to the innovations, Claude-Louis Bertholett, a French chemist, invented the chemical bleaching of pulp in 1785. This produced the level of white paper that is widely used today. It’s most likely that the French Revolutionaries were the first to use such white paper.
However, with this rise in technology and the qualities of paper came an increase in demand. This lead to a shortage in cotton rags, the key material in the process. Laws and regulations were introduced to try and govern the trade of rags.
Source: University of Iowa
19th Century: Wood-based Paper
A quest to replace cotton rags with a substitute raw material began in Europe. Different materials were tested, such as straw. However, often quality concerns would arise - nothing seemed to produce the same consistency.
Then, in 1843, Saxon Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented a wood-grinding machine that produced groundwood pulp ideal for papermaking. Soon after in 1854, Hugh Burgers and Charles Watts invented an alternative way to turn this wood into pulp: chemical pulping.
19th & 20th Century: Industrialisation of Paper Production
With the success of the groundwood pulp, it became the leading raw material for papermaking. The paper industry began to develop industrial plants that specifically produce wood-based paper on an industrial scale to meet the growing demand.
The innovation in mechanical papermaking processes increased drastically throughout the 19th and 20th century. Eventually, it became entirely automated. Everything from the prep, pulping to the drying and packaging. The process had increased in speed, productivity and qualities of paper.
This level of innovation lead to more specialised types of paper grades, for example, lightweight coated papers for magazines, flyers, vouchers.
21st Century: New Possibilities
Today, the paper industry continues to grow and show new possibilities and applications.
So far, the 21st century technology has allowed us to do things like invent paper that can display whether a product is past its sell-by-date by changing colour or produce batteries from paper.
With the contemporary environmental concerns, paper companies are becoming increasingly aware about their impacts. New technology is being developed and invested in to reduce energy consumption from paper mills and generate biofuels.
Source: Ben Kerckx
How Paper is Produced
After centuries of streamlining the process, the modern day paper production now consists of the following steps:
Logging, Stripping & Chipping
The process starts with industrial quantities of tree trunks and logs are harvested. This wood is then put through a stripping machine that removes their bark. The wood is then ready to go into a chipping unit, which shreds it down into small strips.
Pulping & De-mulching
These small strips are then loaded into a large pressure boiler. When the strips is boiled with the large quantities of water it works to produce a paper pulp. The pulp is then de-mulched: water is removed from the pulp with a mesh screen.
Drying & Pressing
The product of the de-mulching is a raw fibrous paper layer, which is then passed through several drying cylinders to solidify its structure. After the drying process, the paper is put through a pressing unit. The weight of it works to equalise its surface texture and produce the desired thickness.
To end the process, the paper is treated with a starch solution or special chemicals to give a specific colour, texture, strength or resistance. The starch solution works to seal the surface of the paper to prevent excessive ink absorption during printing and writing.
Different Types of Paper
Today, paper is used in so many different capacities. Diaries and notebooks still play a huge role in this electronic era. We still receive many of our documents in letters delivered to our doors, we gain certificates on high quality cotton linen paper and decorate gifts in wrapping paper.
What’s more, we’re finding new ways to use paper, like housing insulation can now be made from recycled paper. The paper is treated to be fire retardant, eliminating any health and safety risks and showing how far we’ve progressed in paper technology.
The invention of paper completely revolutionised first the Asian, then Western societies. Paper will remain a huge part of our everyday lives, but in a more planet friendly capacity with the help of recycling.
Despite being surrounded by technology, there’s just something a bit more special and meaningful about writing a thank you letter or sending a wedding invitation...