The Amazing History of Paper!
Just imagine Ts'ai Lun.
The Chinese government official and scholar
is grinding up plants - mulberry bark, linen and hemp.
He makes a big wet mush of separate fibers, then spreads
it all out in a mat made of coarse cloth and a bamboo
It looks like he's got a mess on his hands,
and chances are his family, friends and neighbors are
making fun of him. But when he's done, and the sun has
dried the matted material, he's made something really
Ts'ai Lun, 2,000 years ago, has made paper,
and it will become one of the most important inventions
Even though archaeological evidence shows
that paper may have been made even a little earlier,
Ts'ai Lun was the first to have his efforts recorded.
Like many inventors through the centuries, he built
upon the work of others.
Okay, people had written even before paper
was invented. They scratched on cave walls, painted
too, and drew characters on wet clay. They even wrote
on papyrus made from thinly-sliced papyrus reed which
they glued together to make a sheet.
But it was paper, not papyrus, which has
come to touch just about every aspect of our lives,
from term papers and books, to money and personal care
products. There's never a day, and hardly a waking hour,
that isn't made better by paper.
People did the weaving to make papyrus.
What Ts'ai Lun and others discovered was that plant
fibers, separated and suspended in water, would form
their own woven mats: paper.
The invention credited to Ts'ai Lun was
so elegantly simple that you can re-create it at home,
making your own paper by following the directions on
the back of this brochure.
Chinese papermaking spread slowly but
steadily all over the world, from Asia into Africa and
Europe. Soon just about everyone knew how to make paper.
Still, there wasn't a lot of paper around, since making
it gobbled up a lot of paper-making material.
Early paper was made of rags, and rags
were hard to come by. Ironically, when the disease called
the Plague or Black Death killed millions of people
in Europe, tons of clothing and rags became available
- at just about the time the printing press was invented.
Suddenly, more books were printed, people
became better educated, and these better-educated people
scratched their heads, trying to figure out a substance
that might provide even more paper-making material.
One of those people was a man named Rene
de Réaumur who, in the 1700s, watched a species
of wasp we now call the paper wasp. These insects were
munching on wood. Not eating it, exactly, but chewing
it up, spitting the mush back out and forming nests
with it. Not pretty, Réaumur might have thought,
but pretty interesting. It seemed to him that the wasps
were making paper out of wood.
Somehow, Réaumur never got around
to trying to imitate the wasps by making paper himself,
but had stumbled upon the secret of practical papermaking:
wood could be broken apart, like the other organic materials,
and crafted into paper. We still follow Réaumur's
advice and the wasps' example, although papermaking
has become a more complex and efficient process, and
its products incredibly varied and advanced.
People picked up the paper challenge.
One person, a man named Kellar, learned how to grind
wood efficiently. Others invented new ways to separate
wood fibers. If Réaumur had written down his
paper recipe - or more accurately, the wasps' recipe
- it might have looked like this: wood fiber + water
+ energy = paper.
We still make paper using that same basic
formula. We just vary the kinds of wood fiber and energy,
and the techniques of bringing it all together, to get
just the kinds of paper we want.
There are certainly many types of paper
- newspapers, school books and writing stationery; envelopes,
boxes, packing and wrapping paper; paper toweling, tissue,
and personal hygiene products. Not a day goes by that
we don't use paper in dozens of ways.
And it all goes back to Ts'ai Lun's innovation
and Réaumur's industrious wasps.
Yes, paper was once made one sheet at
a time by artists, and many people still enjoy making
their own special papers. You may discover you like
the magic of turning all kinds of materials into paper.
But papermaking today, creating all the
kinds of paper we use in such huge quantities, is a
science as well as an art. Engineers and technicians
speed things up, using computers to help guide factory
machines that can produce huge rolls of paper at more
than 45 miles an hour.
That would have confounded Ts'ai Lun.
Réaumur's wasps couldn't have kept up. But every
day, papermaking companies around the world turn wood
from trees into pulp, pulp into paper, and paper into
products we all use.
For more information, take a look at Paper
Clips: Online Slide Show or the
American Museum of Papermaking
for a longer, more detailed account of the history of