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Paper's Perky Past

Paper's Perky Past

What you regularly read is printed on it, what you write on is made of it and the food you eat is often wrapped in it. Paper is everywhere – but how long has it been around and what did we use before it came on the scene?

The first base used for the writing of text was papyrus, used by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks in around 3000BC. It was a long process to obtain such a product – with the thin strips having to be soaked, pressed and dried before use. This was used for centuries and, although the methods of applying ink to the papyrus changed, the papyrus itself went more or less unchanged.

The name paper is derived from the name of the papyrus plant, but the methods of making the two are very different. Papyrus is made from the inner pithy body of the flower stem of the papyrus plant, laid together at right angles and pressed together before being dried. Paper, however, is made from pulped cellulose fibres - usually cotton, flax, or wood.



The earliest found paper was made from rags in about 150AD, and found in Turkistan in a ruined tower of the Great Wall of China in 1904, although this is disputed in China who claims the discovery is theirs. In 105AD, a Chinese court official Ts'ai Lun claims to have invented paper from rags, giving it to the Emperor at the time as an alternative to writing on silk.

The thing with papyrus was that people had to do the weaving. But, with paper the plant fibres separated out in water, forming their own woven mats. This was far easier and produced better, more even results. Shortly after this time, expert papermakers appeared to develop the design to make coated and dyed paper – even paper that was protected against insects!

About 600 years later, papermaking spread to Japan, who made their paper from the fine fibres of the mulberry tree. From there the skills moved to Central Asia and on to India and Arabia, where the first paper mills were established – those in Baghdad and Damascus in 751AD producing a fine paper with good writing properties.

A century later, paper had displaced papyrus in Egypt, and in the 12th century, it appeared in Europe for the first time in Spain and Sicily. Initially it was disliked by the Christian world because it was seen as a symbol of Moslem culture - a 1221 decree written by Emperor Frederick II declared all official documents written on paper to be invalid. This didn’t stop the inventors, and watermarks were first seen in Italy in 1282, consisting of simple crosses and circles.

In the 15th century, papermaking spread further across Europe. The development of the printing press in Europe changed the attitude of people towards paper and printing started in earnest with posters, books and circulars. Papermaking was introduced to Britain in 1490 thanks to John Tate.

Paper mills became more common in the 1500s, which improved the paper quality. For the next hundred years production increased all over the world, but soon led to a shortage of raw material. Ironically, the death of millions of people from the Black Death in the 1600s made more rag material available for use as paper. Thus, suddenly, more books were printed and people became better educated. Following several laws and regulations to govern the paper world, normal production of paper was resumed, but the scare had made people look for new alternative materials - tree bark, sugarcane waste, straw and cornstalks.

One man, Rene de Réaumur, was watching wood wasps munching on wood in the 1700s. This gave him the idea to make paper out of wood – if wasps could do it, then so could he. Paper was, after all, just fibres that could be broken apart and re-moulded. Soon, everyone was making it.

Paper moulds were made for the first time in the USA in 1776. In 1804, the first books were being printed on machine-made paper, and fifty years after that, the first chemical pulps were being created. The big change occurred in 1860, when rag pulp paper was replaced by wood pulp. This revolutionised the industry as paper could be made much faster and machines included dryers to set the paper. This all became automated in the 20th century with the advancement of chemical paper methods.

So important is paper, that it was voted the most significant development of the last two millennia in a survey by the Daily Telegraph in 1999. Paper is used in pretty much every aspect of our lives, from newspapers and books, to packing, wrapping paper, money and personal care products.

Papermaking today is a science as well as an art. Factories are computerised and paper can be produced in rolls at 45 miles per hour – and it all stems from Ts'ai Lun's innovations and Réaumur's industrious wasps.


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31 Dec 2008
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