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article imageHow the invention of paper changed our world

By Karen Graham     Mar 13, 2017 in Technology
Paper is the most quintessential example of the world's greatest inventions. We use it to write and print on, cover our walls, clean ourselves and filter our coffee, among other things. The history of paper is a fascinating story, well worth the telling.
Most scholars cite the invention of paper as occurring in AD 105 when an eunuch in the Han court named Cai Lun created a papermaking process that was reported to the Chinese Emperor by Ts'ai Lun, an official of the Imperial Court, although recent archaeological evidence points to the invention of papermaking occurring 200 years earlier in Dunhuang in China's northwest Gansu province.
But whichever date you want to use, the invention of paper was almost immediately a high demand product. Remember, people were writing long before paper was invented. From clay tablets to papyrus, linen, animal skins, metals, tree bark and other materials, mankind used a variety of materials to keep track of time, goods, and other information worth remembering.
Text A: Translation of the cuneiform tablets revealed they described a mathematical technique to cal...
Text A: Translation of the cuneiform tablets revealed they described a mathematical technique to calculate the positions of large bodies in space and time.
Mathieu Ossendrijver
Papermaking take hold in China and spreads to other countries
Early papermaking in China involved a long drawn out process of making a suspension of hemp waste in water - then it was washed, soaked, and beaten to a pulp with a wooden mallet before pouring the mixture into a wooden frame. But early innovation led to the use of wood, bamboo, and other plant fibers being added, improving the quality of the early paper.
And while the first uses of paper were as a wrapping for precious objects, it wasn't too long before people came to realize that it was better than writing on bamboo or silk. This caused an increase in demand and one could say this may have been the first sign of a new industry's birth. Early improvements also included using starch as a sizing material and a yellow dye that acted as an insecticide.
The new-fangled paper and papermaking process spread to Korea where paper production started in the early 6th century AD. A Korean monk by the name of Don-cho, in turn, brought papermaking to Japan in AD 610, six years after Buddhism was introduced in Japan. Of course, the paper was used only for official documents, but after Buddhism took hold, demand for paper rose dramatically.
The tools and technique of making paper leaf depicted in a volume illustrating crafts and trades  Ka...
The tools and technique of making paper leaf depicted in a volume illustrating crafts and trades, Kashmir (Source) British Library: Making Islamic-style paper.
British Museum
The papermaking process continually was improved using creative innovations by the Chinese, and soon papermaking spread in the 9th century to the Islamic world. At this particular time, Islam was enjoying a great deal of cultural growth, and writing on paper was embraced with great zeal.
“The Qur’an says that good Muslims should seek knowledge,” Mark Kurlansky, the author of Paper: Paging Through History writes, “and they did so passionately and with a great deal of ink and paper.” (Arab words for paper, such as kaghid and qirtas—a word used in the Qur’an—are thought to be of Chinese origin.)
Kurlansky notes, and rightly so, that it was through the use of prodigious amounts of paper by Muslims that mathematics, astronomy, medicine, engineering, agriculture, and literature spread to other parts of the world, including the West.
A man reads a manuscript on astronomy by renowned tenth century Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi  at the...
A man reads a manuscript on astronomy by renowned tenth century Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi, at the al-Qarawyin Library on November 21, 2016
Fadel Senna, AFP/File
Europeans have a hard time grasping the new invention
Paper continued its spread around the world, eventually making its way to Samarkand, a city in modern-day Uzbekistan and one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia. However, it took another 500 years for papermaking to reach Europe. It wasn't because Europeans didn't know about paper, after all, some parts of Europe were importing paper as early as the 11th and 12th centuries.
No, at this time in Europe, paper was disdained by the Christian world as being a manifestation of the Muslim culture. This was in part, due to a 1221 decree from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who declared all official documents written on paper to be invalid. So, there you go. But even the church could not keep paper from the masses of people that were soon to embrace this revolutionary new technology, and this came about with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1440s.
The Gutenberg printing press begat other industries
The BBC says the invention of the printing press changed the world and led to Europe's reformation. To be factual, the mass production of the printed page was invented almost 600 years before by Chinese monks setting ink to paper using a method known as block printing.
A Gutenberg press replica at the Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum  in Bermuda.
A Gutenberg press replica at the Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum, in Bermuda.
But it is Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz in Germany who is credited with the invention of a mechanical press that allowed for the printing of hundreds of pages of the printed word. And most of us can't begin to imagine the work that went into the development of that press, or for that matter, the number of technologies the invention encompassed.
Not only did Gutenberg break down wooden blocks formally used in "block printing" into individual upper and lower case letters, he had to do the same with punctuation marks. Using a variety of metals, including tin, antimony, and lead, he cast all the letters and symbols into movable blocks. He also created his own ink, using linseed oil and wood ashes.
The point is, Gutenberg took advantage of the many technologies present at the time to create something new that literally changed humankind. If it weren't for earlier inventions such as the manufacturing of paper, development of ink, woodblock printing, and distribution of eyeglasses, the printing press might have taken longer to come onto the scene.
Movable metal type  and composing stick  descended from Gutenberg s press.
Note: the plate says -  T...
Movable metal type, and composing stick, descended from Gutenberg's press. Note: the plate says - "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and feels as if he were in the seventh heaven of typography together with Hermann Zapf, the most famous artist of the"
Willi Heidelbach
Gutenberg revolutionized printing, and along the way, the paper industry was developed. It is said that once Europeans embraced paper, they created the world's first heavy industry. And it has continued to grow, from the invention of threshing machines to break down plant cellulose, to bleaches and other chemicals developed to make paper less costly to make.
By 1702, the cost of paper had become so cheap that it could be printed on and then thrown away after 24 hours. You guessed it - The first daily newspaper - the Daily Courant was printed, focusing on foreign news at the time. But it wasn't too long before an industrial crisis arose.
Europe and America began to run out of cotton rags used to make paper. Well, the Chinese were far ahead of the rest of the world because they had already figured out how to use wood to make the precious product. It took a French biologist, Rene Antoine Ferchault De Reaumur in 1719 to enlighten folks that if wasps could make paper nests out of wood, why couldn't people?
Will technology lead to the demise of paper?
Needless to say, it wasn't until the mid-19th century until papermaking using wood really caught on. But today, paper is made from paper, recycled in guess where? China, of course. But there are fears that paper's days are numbered. However, back in Thomas Edison's day, people were saying the same thing because they thought his talking machine's wax cylinders would replace office memos.
When computers became so inexpensive that everyone could afford them in one size or another, it was feared that real, hold-it-in-your-hand books would become obsolete. The trend today is moving toward paperless offices and more than likely, paperless homes. Even school children read and type on laptop computers in classrooms across the world.
But the question still is this - Will technology replace an outdated technology? After all, the Gutenberg press replaced block printing. But if you consider pencils, pens and markers, they won't be going anyplace in the near future, will they? It's still fun to doodle on a piece of paper.
More about paper making, gutenberg press, reformation, science and mathmatics, Literacy
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