Is paper the greatest invention of them all?

Most of us come into contact with paper every single day. We see it more often than our loved ones. Whether we scribble a message on a post-it note, receive a till receipt at Tesco or learn origami … paper is part of our daily lives.

Sure, back in the 1440s, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press imprinted itself on the technological landscape as one of humanity’s defining inventions. It turned the page on Europe’s reformation. It transformed science, the newspaper, the novel and knowledge sharing.

Yet, like an empty cup, it was the juicy contents of Gutenberg’s invention that really counted. And that, dear readers, is the good old stalwart, paper.

Let’s face it: paper inspires us. It cuts us. It’s part of us. But have you ever stopped to think where it actually comes from?

Why is it even called paper?

The word ‘paper’ derives from the Egyptian word papyrus. Papyrus is a plant that was abundant in ancient Egypt and whose stem was used to produce a thick, paper-like material that was used for writing and painting. It should be noted that papyrus is only one of the predecessors to the paper that we use now. Other materials included, mulberry and daphne trees.

Who created paper?

Paper as we know it today goes all the way back to China, in the first millennium AD. The invention is attributed to Tsa’i Lun, a court official who used textile waste (rags) as a raw material. History has since described T’sai Lun as the God of paper making! I know what you’re thinking… God of paper making? Yes, that’s an actual thing!

The technique of making paper out of rags soon caught on and, as with all creations, it evolved. Innovation was soon to follow in its footprints. Chinese papermakers went on to develop different finishes on paper. And, with the passing of time, they were able to offer coated and dyed papers as well as being able to produce it to different sizes. It’s hard to imagine that the range of paper sizes, finishes and colours we have today wasn’t always available.

Where does paper as we know it come from?

Paper making continued to spread steadily throughout the western world but still remained relatively small-scale and extremely expensive. However, the 19th Century ushered in a new dawn and the development of steam-driven paper making machines changed the face of paper making.

Cut to the 1840s where we find inventors Fredrich Gottlob and Charles Fenty experimenting with pulping wood. Turning their backs on traditional rags, they created a machine that extracted the fibres from wood pulp and made paper from it. It should also be noted that Charles Fenty was the first person to bleach paper, making it the white paper we recognise today.

By the end of the 19th Century, most western paper producers were using wood pulp and the advancement in technology created a booming industry, making paper significantly cheaper to produce and purchase. Books, magazines and textbooks started to become readily available to the general population and paved the way for significant societal change.

The evolution of paper production created a revolution

Paper and printed materials ceased to be a trapping of the rich and became accessible to the masses. The growing availability of paper and printed materials meant increasing numbers of people became literate and educated. It allowed the general public the opportunity to decide their own fate and lift themselves out of poverty. It’s hard to think of a single object that has heralded such change.

Today …

Can you imagine what your life would look like without paper? No magazines, no books, and of course no origami. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Now, please excuse me, I’m off to buy some paper, the printer is out …