Archive for the Paper Category

Nicholas-Louis Robert (1761 – 1828): Papermaking machine

Posted in Paper, People in Media History with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2016 by multimediaman
Engraving of Nicholas-Louis Robert: December 2, 1761–August 8, 1828

Engraving of Nicholas-Louis Robert: December 2, 1761–August 8, 1828

Industry experts say that there are more than twenty thousand uses of paper in the world today. Communication, currency, hygiene, manufacturing, packaging and construction are a few of the commercial applications of paper. Remarkably, even with the growth of electronic and digital alternatives, the worldwide production of paper and cardboard has continued to expand.

Paper is so ubiquitous in our lives that it would seem that the subject of its origins and development would be of interest to just about everyone. Yet the versatility and utility of paper are such that we barely notice it. As librarian and historian John Bidwell has said, “If you’re noticing paper, that probably means there’s something wrong with it.”

Throughout its history, paper has served as the vehicle upon which an image is presented; it is the medium that delivers the message. The more invisible its “negative” form, the more effective paper carries its “positive” content.

Perhaps this background role is at least partially responsible for the perception that paper is more effect than cause; that the development of paper has always been driven by the requirements of what is printed upon it. However, the truth is that the evolution of paper and the methods of its making have proceeded in reciprocal relation to print, as both its catalyst and consequence.

* * * * *

And so it was that paper was invented by Ts’ai Lun (Cai Lun) in China in 105 AD initially for the purpose of facilitating calligraphy. By the time Oriental wood block printing was developed a century later, the making of hand writing papers was an established craft. The new printing method was adapted to the lightweight Chinese stock and the soft impression of the wood block prints could only be effectively made upon one side of this paper.

Beginning with the papers made for Chinese calligraphy from around 100 AD, Chinese woodblock printing types (200 AD) and Gutenberg’s metal type characters (1440) were influenced by the paper that was available at the time of their invention.

Beginning with the papers made for Chinese calligraphy from around 100 AD, Chinese wood block printing types (200 AD) and Gutenberg’s metal type characters (1440) were influenced by the paper that was available at the time of their invention.

More than one thousand years later—after papermaking made its way across Asia and the Middle East and became established in Europe—a different kind of paper was being made. Crafted from macerated linen and cloth fibers, dipped in animal gelatin and dried to accommodate the quill pen, this paper was used by Gutenberg in the application of his movable metal printing types. The pressure of the inked metal type impression took to these hardened European papers in a manner that facilitated printing on both sides of the sheet.

Four-and-a-half centuries later, as print was being transformed from a craft to an industry, paper once again emerged as the driver of innovation. Many years before the application of metal construction, cylinders and steam power to printing machines, the technology of papermaking had undergone its own revolution.

The papermaking machine

In 1798, Frenchman Nicholas-Louis Robert began the industrialization of printing by inventing the papermaking machine. Although there were many technical hurdles to be overcome, the essential features of Robert’s first successful invention have remained standard in paper manufacturing to this day.

Robert’s technical innovation was the rotating cloth screen (wire) belt that received a continuous flow of fibers and delivered an unbroken sheet of wet paper to a pair of squeeze rollers. As the long strip of paper came off the machine, in Robert’s configuration it was hung by hand to dry on a series of bars or cables. This would later become a roll of paper.

Model of Robert’s original invention reconstructed from the drawings that accompanied his French patent application of 1798

Model of Robert’s original invention reconstructed from the drawings that accompanied his French patent application of 1798

Prior to the Robert’s invention, all paper was made by hand and consisted of dipping a framed mould with a porous surface into a vat of fibers suspended in water. Upon lifting the mould from the vat, a thin layer of fibers rested on top of the screen and was dried to form a sheet of paper. With this method, the mould could be used again only when the sheet had dried and been removed from it.

Aside from its important technical features, the key results of the papermaking machine were:

  • Productivity:
    The volume of paper that previously would have taken many hand papermakers and many hours could be produced by a single operator in far less time.
  • Paper Size:
    Sheet dimension was limited with handmade paper. It was not possible for a craftsman to adequately balance a large mould. With Robert’s machine, paper size was limited only by the width of the machine and the length was endless.

Nicholas-Louis Robert

Nicholas-Louis Robert was born in Paris in a small house on December 2, 1761. He had health problems as a child and was quite frail. Despite his condition, when he turned fifteen, the boy made an effort to join the French army because he was concerned that his aging parents could not afford to take care of him. The military did not allow him to join and Nicholas-Louis was returned to his parents’ home to continue his studies.

Four years later, following a period of severe mental anguish for having been a burden to the family, Nicholas-Louis again applied for military service. On April 23, 1780, he was admitted to the First Battalion of the Grenoble Artillery and was stationed in a garrison at Calais, a port city in Northern France across the English Channel from the clifftop town of Dover.

Portrait of Nicholas-Louis Robert from a watercolor painted by his sister

Portrait of Nicholas-Louis Robert from a watercolor painted by his sister

Robert’s military experience took a dramatic turn in 1781 when the young soldier was sent to war in the Caribbean during the American Revolution. The French Metz Artillery regiment sailed to Santo Domingo to fight an engagement against the British. Having won the battle, Nicholas-Louis returned home and shortly thereafter left the military at age 28 to seek an occupation in civilian life.

With a mechanical aptitude, Robert turned to the printing craft and landed a clerkship with the well-known printing, type founding and publishing company Didot in Paris. After working for several years in the office, Nicholas-Louis sought a new opportunity in related industries and came upon the paper mill operations of Francois Didot in Essones, a well-known papermaking center south of Paris.

The Didot papermaking operation was quite important as much of French paper currency was printed there. Nicholas-Louis initially obtained a position as mill personnel inspector. Having regular contact with the staff, Nicholas-Louis found that there many antagonisms among the hand paper making tradesmen and these problems frustrated him.

The invention

After working in the mill for months, it occurred to Robert that there was a more advanced method for making paper; that it might be possible to get around the constant quarrelling among the papermaking trades. While the discord among the employees of the mill may have been the impulse for Robert’s research—he was after all under the direction of the owner Didot—the fact is that his project led to a significant reduction in the cost and a more abundant supply of paper.

Robert’s initial attempts at a papermaking machine were failures and termed “feeble” by Didot. Nonetheless, Didot encouraged Nicholas-Louis to continue with his work. For a time, the young man gave up on his project and became involved in other areas of mill operations. But under the constant prodding of his boss, he returned to his research in mechanical papermaking.

Diagram of Robert’s original papermaking machine

Diagram of Robert’s original papermaking machine

Soon, with the help of others at the Didot establishment, Robert saw that the basic principles of his original concept were sound. His earlier work was revived and he proceeded with the construction of a device that was larger than the first machine. Finally, when trial sheets of paper had been effectively produced on the new machine, Didot encouraged Nicholas-Robert to file a patent for his invention.

On September 9, 1798, Robert and Didot traveled to Paris and presented a patent application to the French Minister of the Interior. In a letter that accompanied the application, Nicholas-Louis wrote, “It has been my dream to simplify the operation of making paper by forming it with infinite less expense, and, above all, in making sheets of an extraordinary length without the help of any worker, using only mechanical means. … The machine makes for economy of time and expense and extraordinary paper, being 12 to 15 meters (472 to 590 inches) in length, if one wishes.”

The patent was granted at a cost of 1,562 francs and dated January 18, 1799. Considering the fact that the maximum length of handmade paper was about 32 inches, Robert’s machine represented an enormous step forward. The French government recognized the significance of his invention and dispatched an engineer to the Didot mill to assist in the construction of an improved model.

The Bureau of Arts and Trades wrote of it, “this machine forms paper of great width and indefinite length. The machine makes paper of perfect quality in thickness and gives advantages that cannot be derived from ordinary methods of forming paper by hand, where each sheet is limited in size in comparison with those made on this machine.”

Further developments

Mention must be made of the fact that Robert’s papermaking machine was invented during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution (1789-1799). It is no accident that this technical breakthrough coincided with the spread of the ideas of “liberty, equality and fraternity” that depended greatly upon the printed word.

Mid-19th century drawing of a Fourdrinier papermaking machine

Mid-19th century drawing of a Fourdrinier papermaking machine

However, as the historian Dard Hunter described, the “disturbed conditions” of the period were such that very little progress was made by Didot and Robert beyond the initial invention. As Robert became preoccupied with the financial benefits of his accomplishment, he sold his patent to Didot for 25,000 francs, a modest sum considering the implications of the invention.

Didot immediately sought to move further development of the project out of France and into the more stable environment of England. Didot’s brother in law, John Gamble, was an English paper-mill owner and the two corresponded to have a much larger machine constructed. It was then that the London stationers Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier became involved in building papermaking machines.

A monument to the memory of Nicholas-Louis Robert was erected outside the church at Vernouillet, France in 1912.

A monument to the memory of Nicholas-Louis Robert in Vernouillet, France

Following several modifications to the wire, the Fourdrinier brothers invested 60,000 pounds in the construction of a large machine that could make paper on continuous rolls. This attempt was eventually proven successful and they were granted an English patent for it in 1806. However, the project was not commercially successful and it bankrupted the Fourdriniers. Nevertheless, to this day—although its basic design was invented by Nicholas-Louis Robert—the papermaking machine bears the Fourdrinier name.

While the Fourdrinier machine underwent rapid development in the nineteenth century, the ingenious Nicholas Louis was living quietly in France. When the first commercial papermaking machine was installed there in France in 1811, Robert was approaching fifty years of age and on his way out of the papermaking business. In 1812, he opened a small primary school in Vernouillet, northwest of Paris where he worked as a poorly paid teacher. Never realizing the financial benefit from his invention, Nicholas-Louis died broken and destitute on August 8, 1828. A monument to Robert’s memory was erected in 1912 outside the church at Vernouillet.

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Books, e-books and the e-paper chase

Posted in Digital Media, Mobile, Mobile Media, Paper, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2016 by multimediaman

Last November Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle near the campus of the University of Washington. More than two decades after it pioneered online book sales—and initiated the e-commerce disruption of the retail industry—the $550 billion company seemed to be taking a step backward with its “brick and mortar” Amazon Books.

Amazon Books opened in Seattle on November 3, 2015

Amazon opened its first retail book store in Seattle on November 3, 2015

However, Amazon launched its store concept with a nod to traditional consumer shopping habits, i.e. the ability to “kick the tires.” Amazon knows very well that many customers like to browse the shelves in bookstores and fiddle with electronic gadgets like the Kindle, Fire TV and Echo before they make buying decisions.

So far, the Seattle book store has been successful and Amazon has plans to open more locations. Some unique features of the Amazon.com buying experience have been extended to the book store. Customer star ratings and reviews are posted near book displays; shoppers are encouraged to use the Amazon app and scan bar codes to check prices.

Amazon’s book store initiative was also possibly motivated by the persistence and strength of the print book market. Despite the rapid rise of e-books, print books have shown a resurgence of late. Following a sales decline of 15 million print books in 2013 to just above 500 million units, the past two years have seen an increase to 560 million in 2014 and 570 million in 2015. Meanwhile, the American Booksellers Association reported a substantial increase in independent bookstores over the past five years (1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations in 2010).

Print books and e-books

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

After rising rapidly since 2008, e-book sales have stabilized at between 25% and 30% of total book sales

The ratio of e-book to print book sales appears to have leveled off at around 1 to 3. This relationship supports recent public perception surveys and learning studies that show the reading experience and information retention properties of print books are superior to that of e-books.

The reasons for the recent uptick in print sales and the slowing of e-book expansion are complex. Changes in the overall economy, adjustments to bookstore inventory from digital print technologies and the acclimation of consumers to the differences between the two media platforms have created a dynamic and rapidly shifting landscape.

As many analysts have insisted, it is difficult to make any hard and fast predictions about future trends of either segment of the book market. However, two things are clear: (1) the printed book will undergo little further evolution and (2) the e-book is headed for rapid and dramatic innovation.

Amazon launched the e-book revolution in 2007 with the first Kindle device. Although digital books were previously available in various computer file formats and media types like CD-ROMs for decades, e-books connected with Amazon’s Kindle took off in popularity beginning in 2008. The most important technical innovation of the Kindle—and a major factor in its success—was the implementation of the e-paper display.

Distinct from backlit LCD displays on most mobile devices and personal computers, e-paper displays are designed to mimic the appearance of ink on paper. Another important difference is that the energy requirements of e-paper devices are significantly lower than LCD-based systems. Even in later models that offer automatic back lighting for low-light reading conditions, e-paper devices will run for weeks on a single charge while most LCD systems require a recharge in less than 24-hours.

Nick Sheridon and Gyricon

The theory behind the Kindle’s ink-on-paper emulation was originated in the 1970s at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California by Nick Sheridon. Sheridon developed his concepts while working to overcome limitations with the displays of the Xerox Alto, the first desktop computer. The early monitors could only be viewed in darkened office environments because of insufficient brightness and contrast.

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate to create an image

Nick Sheridon and his team at Xerox PARC invented Gyricon in 1974, a thin layer of transparent plastic composed of bichromal beads that rotate with changes in voltage to create an image on the surface

Sheridon sought to develop a display that could match the contrast and readability of black ink on white paper. Along with his team of engineers at Xerox, Sheridon developed Gyricon, a substrate with thousands of microscopic plastic beads—each of which were half black and half white—suspended in a thin and transparent silicon sheet. Changes in voltage polarity caused either the white or black side of the beads to rotate up and display images and text without backlighting or special ambient light conditions.

After Xerox cancelled the Alto project in the early 1980s, Sheridon took his Gyricon technology in a new direction. By the late 1980s, he was working on methods to manufacture a new digital display system as part of the “paperless office.” As Sheridon explained later, “There was a need for a paper-like electronic display—e-paper! It needed to have as many paper properties as possible, because ink on paper is the ‘perfect display.’”

In 2000, Gyricon LLC was founded as a subsidiary of Xerox to develop commercially viable e-paper products. The startup opened manufacturing facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan and developed several products including e-signage that utilized Wi-Fi networking to remotely update messaging. Unfortunately, Xerox shut down the entity in 2005 due to financial problems.

Pioneer of e-paper Nick Sheridon

Pioneer of e-paper, Nicholas Sheridan

Among the challenges Gyricon faced were making a truly paper-like material that had sufficient contrast and resolution while keeping manufacturing costs low. Sheridan maintained that e-paper displays would only be viable economically if units were sold for less than $100 so that “nearly everyone could have one.”

As Sheridon explained in a 2009 interview: “The holy grail of e-paper will be embodied as a cylindrical tube, about 1 centimeter in diameter and 15 to 20 centimeters long, that a person can comfortably carry in his or her pocket. The tube will contain a tightly rolled sheet of e-paper that can be spooled out of a slit in the tube as a flat sheet, for reading, and stored again at the touch of a button. Information will be downloaded—there will be simple user interface—from an overhead satellite, a cell phone network, or an internal memory chip.”

E Ink

By the 1990s competitors began entering the e-paper market. E Ink, founded in 1998 by a group of scientists and engineers from MIT’s Media Lab including Russ Wilcox, developed a concept similar to Sheridon’s. Instead of using rotating beads with white and black hemispheres, E Ink introduced a method of suspending microencapsulated cells filled with both black and white particles in a thin transparent film. Electrical charges to the film caused the black or white particles to rise to the top of the microcapsules and create the appearance of a printed page.

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink cofounder Russ Wilcox

E Ink’s e-paper technology was initially implemented by Sony in 2004 in the first commercially available e-reader called LIBRIe. In 2006, Motorola integrated an E Ink display in its F3 cellular phone. A year later, Amazon included E Ink’s 6-inch display in the first Amazon Kindle which became by far the most popular device of its kind.

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Kindle Voyage (2014) and Kindle Paperwhite (2015) with the latest e-paper displays (Carta) from E ink

Subsequent generations of Kindle devices have integrated E Ink displays with progressively improved contrast, resolution and energy consumption. By 2011, the third generation Kindle included touch screen capability (the original Kindle had an integrated hardware keyboard for input).

The current edition of the Kindle Paperwhite (3rd Generation) combines back lighting and a touch interface with E Ink Carta technology and a resolution of 300 pixels per inch. Many other e-readers such as the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Kobo, the Onyx Boox and the PocketBook also use E Ink products for their displays.

Historical parallel

The quest to replicate, as closely as possible in electronic form, the appearance of ink on paper is logical enough. In the absence of a practical and culturally established form, the new media naturally strives to emulate that which came before it. This process is reminiscent of the evolution of the first printed books. For many decades, print carried over the characteristics of the books that were hand-copied by scribes.

It is well known that Gutenberg’s “mechanized handwriting” invention (1440-50) sought to imitate the best works of the Medieval monks. The Gutenberg Bible, for instance, has two columns of print text while everything else about the volume—paper, size, ornamental drop caps, illustrations, gold leaf accents, binding, etc.—required techniques that preceded the invention of printing. Thus, the initial impact of Gutenberg’s system was an increase in the productivity of book duplication and the displacement of scribes; it would take some time for the implications of the new process to work its way through the function, form and content of books.

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

Ornamented title page of the Gutenberg Bible printed in 1451

More than a half century later—following the spread of Gutenberg’s invention to the rest of Europe—the book began to evolve dramatically and take on attributes specific to printing and other changes taking place in society. For example, by the first decade of the 1500s, books were no longer stationary objects to be read in exclusive libraries and reading rooms of the privileged few. As their cost dropped, editions became more plentiful and literacy expanded, books were being read everywhere and by everybody.

By the middle 1500s, both the form and content of books became transformed. To facilitate their newfound portability, the size of books fell from the folio (14.5” x 20”) to the octavo dimension (7” x 10.5”). By the beginning of the next century, popular literature—the first European novel is widely recognized as Cervantes’ Don Quixote of 1605—supplanted verse and classic texts. New forms of print media developed such as chapbooks, broadsheets and newspapers.

Next generation e-paper

It seems clear that the dominance of LCD displays on computers, mobile and handheld devices is a factor in the persistent affinity of the public for print books. Much of the technology investment and advancement of the past decade—coming from companies such as Apple Computer—has been been committed to computer miniaturization, touch interface and mobility, not the transition from print to electronic media. While first decade e-readers have made important strides, most e-books are still being read on devices that are visually distant from print books, impeding a more substantial migration to the new media.

Additionally, most current e-paper devices have many unpaper-like characteristics such as relatively small size, inflexibility, limited bit-depth and the inability to write ton them. All current model e-paper Kindles, for example, are limited to 6-inch displays with 16 grey levels beneath a heavy and fragile layer of glass and no support for handwriting.

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

The Sony Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) is based on E Ink’s Mobius e-paper display technology: 13.3” format, flexible and supports stylus handwriting

A new generation of e-paper systems is now being developed that overcome many of these limitations. In 2014, Sony released its Digital Paper System (DPT-S1) that is a letter-size e-reader and e-notebook (for $1,100 at launch and currently selling for $799). The DPT-S1 is based on E Ink’s Mobius display, a 13.3” thin film transistor (TFT) platform that is flexible and can accept handwriting from a stylus.

Since it does not have any glass, the new Sony device weighs 12.6 oz or about half of a similar LCD-based tablet. With the addition of stylus-based handwriting capability, the device functions like an electronic notepad and, meanwhile, notes can be written in the margins of e-books and other electronic documents.

These advancements and others show that e-paper is positioned for a renewed surge into things that have yet to be conceived. Once a flat surface can be curved or even folded and then made to transform itself into any image—including a color image—at any time and at very low cost and very low energy consumption, then many things are possible like e-wall paper, e-wrapping paper, e-milk cartons and e-price tags. The possibilities are enormous.

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

Posted in Digital Media, Paper, People in Media History, Print Media with tags , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2012 by multimediaman

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.