All About Paper

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 frame.

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 remarkable.

Ts'ai Lun, 2,000 years ago, has made paper, and it will become one of the most important inventions ever.

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 paper.


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