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The History of Paper

Image: A Sheet of PapyrusThe word "paper" comes from the word "papyrus", but papyrus itself is not actually paper, but its predecessor. Papyrus was used by the ancient Egyptians and made by a process generally known as "tapa", the technique which involves beating or pressing and was used extensively in cultures lying near the Equator and is still practiced today in sparse locations in the Himalayas and in Southeast Asia. The technique used bast, which is a kind of strong fiber with properties similar to flax. The bast is softened by a cooking process, and then is beaten and flattened into a thin fibrous sheet. This sheet is then dissolved in water to form a water-pulp mixture. This mixture is then poured into a wooden frame with a fabric bottom. This is put into a large amount of water, and the resulting water-pulp mixture is spread by hand. The water is then allowed to drain from the frame and then the frame is set by a fire to dry. When the frame(and what is now paper-like material) is dry, the paper-like sheet can now be pulled from the frame and used. This process, while ingenious for its time, had some problems. Bast was not widely available to everyone, and even if it was, the amount was not enough to make a good sheet of papyrus. Soon substitutes, such as hemp and flax, which were normally used for making textiles, ended up being used. The other problem was the fact that one could not make another sheet of papyrus until the paper-like sheet last used was dry and peeled off the frame. An increase in production, such as using multiple frames, would create a shortage of an already scarce raw material.

Paper Is Invented

Image: Chinese Painting Although it is not historically known which person invented paper, legend has it that paper was invented in 105 A.D. by a Chinese eunuch(other versions of the story say he was an Imperial Court official) named Ts'ai Lun. Archeologial records, however, indicate that paper was available as far back as 200 years earlier. Nevertheless, the Chinese are credited for inventing what we now know as paper. Not only did they invent it, they also improved upon it, using starch as a sizing material and adding a yellow dye in order to stave off insects. They used coarsely woven cloth set in bamboo frames, and later they improved the papermaking process by developing a smooth covering for the paper making mold, allowing the mold to immediately be used after a sheet has been formed and not having to wait until the frame is dry. Papermaking went through a series of refinement periods in China:

Early Period(206 B.C.-220 A.D.)
[West Ham Dynasty to East Han Dynasty]

In this period, paper is not yet popular. Silk is available and silk paper as well as paper made of hemp is invented at this time, which are produced from fabric scraps.

Development Period(265-581 A.D.)
[West Jin Dynasty to Sui Dynasty]

This period marks the time when paper becomes much more popular, surpassing silk and bamboo as the preferred medium for writing and artwork.

Leap Period(618-1279 A.D.)
[Tang and Song Dynasty]

In this period, papermaking advanced to the point where different paper types could be made available to artists. These different paper types included hemp paper, hide paper, bamboo paper, and xuan paper. Xuan paper was special, in particular, in the fact that it had a very smooth, white surface, which was perfect for use in artwork and calligraphy.

Peak Period(1271-1911 A.D.)
[Yuan, Ming & Qing Dynasties]

This period marks centuries of constant improvement in the technology of papermaking. In this era, the Chinese art of making paper is at its highest. The period of Shuen-De(1426-1436) in the Ming Dynasty, in particular, produced some of the finest quality paper for artwork, being made from Sa-Tan rice straw and Qin-tan bush fibers, which was highly prized among artists of the time. By the end of this era, the art of papermaking had spread thruought the world.

Papermaking remained a Chinese technological secret for centuries until it finally spread to Korea, Japan, and the Middle East through trade routes. Soon, paper replaced papyrus as the main writing medium. The Chinese also spread their knowlege of papermaking to Tibet, where paper replaced traditional writing material there. The original, narrow palm-leaf books still influences the shape of Tibetan books today.
Image: Page out of a Tibetan book

Paper Spreads to Europe

Image: Page fronm Gutenberg BibleThe first paper mills were built in Italy and Spain in the 11th Century and Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press increased the demand for paper(and knowlege) tremendously. By 1500 almost 500,000 books were printed. One of the first books printed, Johann Gutenberg's 42-line Bible, used paper that has never been excelled for durability and the printing of the Bible is seen as a major turning point in printing history. The Italians provided further advancements in the papermaking process, including the use of water power. Pulp in the West was originally created from a variety of sources, including old clothes and cotton, but it was soon discovered that paper could be made from hundreds of different cellulose and other fibers, including mulberry, straw, banana, sugar cane, rice, and corn stalk. Paper can be made to have a very short life-span, such as modern newsprint in use today, or can be made to last hundreds or even thousands of years.

Wood Is Finally Used To Make Paper

Image: TreesThe need for paper greatly increased during the Industrial Revolution, and materials that were usually exploited to make paper became scarce. During the American Civil War, rags and cotton became rare as the uses for these materials went to the War efforts, such as bandages, uniforms, etc. This critical shortage provided an impetus for finding more materials that paper could be made from, and made easily. An extremely wide variety of materials were tested, including, believe it or not, cow excrement! From about 1840 to 1890, the little amount of rags available were mixed with straw to help provide for the need of paper. Wood was finally first used to make pulp for paper production in 1872, only 130 years ago. The printers of the time at first would have nothing to do with it, and as a result, the first wood pulp mills went out of buisness. After some time, a desperate paper mill in New England finally shipped paper made from wood and rag pulp, but however claimed it was made from rags and straw. It was found to work well in presses, dispelling the printers' worries. Paper made from wood increased in popularity during the early 1900's until it became by far the main type of paper in use and still remains in use today.

Papermaking in the 20th Century

Image: Paper MachineScience and knowlege in the 20th Century grew faster than any century before-hand. From the advancements in chemistry and physics with quantum mechanics and Relativity to the advent of commercial airlines, computers, and space-flight, mankind has expanded its knowlege of how to do things, and do them better. Papermaking has not been left in the dust. In the last 20 years, papermaking has been advanced through the use, among others, of thermomechanical pulp, development of new paper grades, such as light weight coated(LWC) paper, new sheet forming processes, new fillers, chemical dyes, de-inked recovered paper, and, most of all, automation of the papermaking process. There has also been increased awareness in the ecological effects of papermaking, and much has been done to increase recycling efforts and to prevent the papermaking process from harming the environment.

The Future of Paper

Image: Paper PhoneWith the advent of the Internet, there were many people who believed that paper would be made obsolete as literature becomes available online. Of course, this turned out not to be true. But what about the future? Will paper have a role in an age increasingly ruled by computers, pagers, e-mail and webpages? The answer, most definately, is a resounding yes. While there have been many advances in the digital realm, and companies such as E-Ink are making progress toward making paper act more like a digital device and interface into computers, things still can go wrong. Hard drives and floppy disks can still become corrupted, CDs can become scratched, and computers can fail for any number of reasons and they, of course, require electricity to operate. Paper, however, will probably play an increasing role in the computer and hardware industries, as it will become a more viable option to actually print circuts onto paper, making future laptops much more versatile than the ones today and making phones made out of paper possible. Despite all the technology available to mankind, for the forseeable future, paper, an invention that is almost a thousand years old, is still the most viable and convenient option for storing data that can survive generations of use without wearing out.