Between papyrus & flexible e-paper displays: Two millennia of paper

We often take paper for granted. When searching for a dollar bill, filling up a fountain drink cup or moving a leaf bag to the curb, do we think about paper? Probably not. We are focused on the useful purpose of these daily items and don’t have time to stop and think about how they are made or what they are made of.

Christian religious text written on papyrus

Paper in all its different forms, qualities and applications has been around for a very long time. Most commonly, paper is thought of as a medium for the written or printed word. This is natural since paper—the word is derived from the Latin term papyrus—was developed as a writing surface 1,800 years ago by the Chinese to replace wood and bamboo scrolls.

The papermaking process—basically unchanged since Ts’ai Lun invented it in 105 AD—is a marvel of human ingenuity. Distinct from the papyrus of ancient Egypt, where thinly cut plant stalks were woven and laminated together, paper is the reduction of a raw material to individual fibers and their liquid suspension onto a mat or sheet.

With today’s instant global communications and world travel, it might seem strange that it took 500 years for papermaking to leave China and arrive in Japan and nearly 1,000 years for it to reach Europe. Nonetheless, paper’s global growth and development is an important chapter of world history.

  • In the seventh century, the Japanese were the first to recycle and repulp paper. In 750 AD, after a battle between the Chinese and the Muslims in what is now Uzbekistan, a group of Chinese prisoners revealed their secrets to their Middle Eastern captors. Once the Muslims began making paper, they went on to develop water powered stamping/hammer mills for the pulping process.
  • Papermaking entered Europe through the Muslim Moors of southern Spain in about 1100 AD. At that time, most European documents were recorded on parchment, a writing surface of sheepskin or vellum from calfskin. Since Europe was majority Christian and it was the time of the Crusades, the papermaking techniques of the Moors were not discovered by Europeans until after the military campaigns were concluded in the south. Once the Vatican was exposed to the wonders of papermaking, Italy emerged as the primary producer of paper in Europe.
  • In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the center of papermaking moved from Italy to France when the craft was encouraged by the monarchy. Just as demand for handwritten documents was on the rise, metallurgist Johann Gutenberg invented the mechanical methods of type setting and printing in Mainz, Germany in 1450. As the printing press spread throughout Europe, the volumes of paper being produced by the mills in France and Italy grew exponentially.
  • By the eighteenth century, papermaking had moved largely to Germany and Holland due to the social and political instability in France. Meanwhile, the technology of the paper industry was undergoing a transformation brought on by the emergence of manufacturing throughout Europe. These are the same industrial developments that impacted printing presses; iron in place of wood; steam in place of manpower or other natural forces such as wind and water.

The Fourdrinier paper machine and portrait of Nicholas-Louis Robert

  • In 1800, a Frenchman named Nicholas-Louis Robert patented an invention that converted papermaking into a mass production industry. Robert’s paper machine had a continuous wire screen upon which the slurry was poured so that the excess water would pass straight through it. The paper in formation was progressively dried by a series of felt rollers until it was solid enough to be wound onto a roll. Thus, paper no longer needed to made in individual sheets.
  • Several years later, Robert’s invention was sold to the Fourdrinier brothers of London where they constructed a much larger version of it. In 1812, the first Fourdrinier—the name associated with Robert’s invention and remains the primary method for papermaking to this day—machine was started up in a mill near Two Waters, England. Later, cylinders for pulp transport, drums for drying and techniques to prevent ink absorption into the fibers of the paper (sizing) would modify the Fourdrinier system.
  • By the mid nineteenth century, the center of papermaking moved to America and played an important role in the growth of newspaper publishing around the time of the Civil War. Up to this point, the fiber for papermaking—especially in Europe—came from the fabric in rags. But with the vast forests of North America, wood fiber quickly became the source of paper pulp and groundwood the essential raw material for the newsprint industry.
  • In the twentieth century, as printing technology moved from black and white letterpress to full color offset lithography, coated papers were developed. The papermaking process evolved from offline to inline coating systems. Today, the pulp and paper industries worldwide are going through a transformation born of the global economy and the shifting of paper consumption from west to east. According to industry data, paper consumption in the advanced world is falling rapidly—brought on by electronic media and recycling practices—while paper consumption in the developing world is rising even more rapidly. In 2009, for example, paper consumption in China surpassed that of the United States for the first time.

Text displayed on Gyricon e-paper and Nick Sheridon

While paper remains the number one media for publishing, electronic and online alternatives have been in development and grown rapidly over the last several decades. In the 1970s, Nick Sheridon at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) developed the world’s first electronic paper, called Gyricon. It consisted of microscopic polyethylene spheres with black on one side and white on the other embedded in a silicon sheet. With the appropriate electronic charge this e-paper could be used over and over again to display an unlimited number of different images much like a computer monitor.

LG’s six inch flexible e-paper display

In 2007, Amazon began marketing the Kindle e-book reader based on a principle similar to Sheridon’s invention. The Kindle emulates the visual characteristics of book paper because it relies upon reflective light as opposed to the transmissive backlighting of computer displays. Although these technologies lack the surface flexibility of paper, there are developments underway that will soon bring that attribute to electronic publishing. For example, in March of this year, LG unveiled the world’s first commercially available six-inch e-paper display that can be bent at an angle of up to 40 degrees.

While good old-fashioned paper will be around for a long time—ensured by its utility, durability, recyclability and cost—the one sector where we can now visualize its decline and disappearance is in the publication of books, magazines and newspapers. Perhaps by that time we will better appreciate the miracle of paper and no longer take it for granted.

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