Before paper was invented, wood, bamboo, stones, papyrus and even silk were all used to capture history. Bamboo and stones were heavy, and silk and papyrus were too expensive for everyday use. In ancient Egypt, scribes spent years learning their craft and weren’t allowed to use papyrus for their lessons until they had mastered the basics of writing. Instead they had to practice on wood or ostraca (pottery shards).
Cai Lun, sometimes spelled T’sai Lun, was inducted into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in 2009 for inventing paper in 105 AD. He was a servant from the Chinese imperial court, during the Han Dynasty. Lun created the first modern paper by using bark of trees, hemp waste, old rags, and fish nets. Due to Lun’s position within the imperial court, he was able to create a widespread adoption of paper that dramatically changed society.
Even with the widespread adoption of paper, it was still difficult and time consuming to make. Because of this, paper making was an artisan craft and didn’t spread to Asia until the early 600s and into the Middle East until the mid-700s.
Europeans weren’t documented making paper until the 12th century. Paper making didn’t reach the United States until 1690, when William Rittenhouse emigrated from Holland and opened the Rittenhouse Paper Mill in what is now Philadelphia. Previous to this, all paper was imported from Europe.
Paper making stayed virtually the same until Louis Nicolas Robert, invented a wire paper machine in 1797. Prior to this invention, paper was made one sheet at a time by dipping a rectangular frame or mold with a wire screen bottom into a vat of pulp. The frame could not be re-used until the previous sheet of paper was removed.
Robert’s wire paper machine made continuous, long lengths of paper that were manually hung on cables or rolls. The French Government granted Robert a patent two years later. Robert sold his revolutionary design to an Englishman who had the financial resources to manufacture the machine.
About 1,600 years after Cai Lun’s invention, paper was still being made using rags and plant fibers. In the mid 1700s, French entomologist and writer, Rene Reaumur, observed wasps feeding from wood to make their nests. Based on this observation, he wrote an article suggesting paper could be made from trees. One hundred years later, 25-year-old Friedrich Gottlob Keller, took Reaumur’s suggestion literally, and built a machine that could extract the fibers from wood.
Lacking the financial resources to make this machine commercially, Keller sold his design and patent in 1945 to German papermaker, Heinrich Voelter who partnered with Johann Voith to redesign Keller’s machine to improve factory output.
Voith saw a need to create higher quality wood pulp, and therefore invented a new process for refining wood splinters. His innovation revolutionized the paper making industry by creating a high quality wood pulp for paper products.
From rags to wood to recycling
The first commercial groundwood pulp machine was on U.S. soil in 1867. The New York Times was the seventh U.S. newspaper to switch from using rags and plant fiber paper to wood based paper. By the end of the 1800s there were only a small handful of newspaper companies that hadn’t switch over to wood based paper.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that recycled paper was used as a feed stock to make new paper.
Because paper has had such a significant impact in our history, a small group of paper industry leaders, founded the Paper International Hall of Fame in 1992, located in Appleton.
These individuals “felt strongly that those who had done so much to develop the industry should be recognized for their impact in the health, education, and general well-being of people all over the world.” If you find yourself in Appleton, make sure to visit this one-of-a-kind museum!