Once again I am going to deal with one of those inventions that play a protagonist role in our lives, in such a way that one would think that they have always been here, that they are one of the key elements for the existence of humanity, such as oxygen, vegetation, water, and so many others. It is difficult to imagine a human being without it. Nevertheless, it was not invented , at least in the Western world as we know it today until 10 years ago. I am talking about paper.

It is not possible to identify a concrete moment where paper, such as we know it, was invented and patented. Its invention was a gradual process that developed over hundreds or even thousands of years.

Mankind always felt the need to record data, artistic creations, communications, etc. Initially it was stone that was used, as some famous artistic representations found in caves have shown, clay subsequently, marble, the well-known papyrus in Egypt, etc.

The Printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440’s, a goldsmith from Minz in Germany, is widely considered to be one of humanity’s defining inventions.  Gutenberg figured out how to make large quantities of durable metal type and how to fix that type, firmly enough to print hundreds of pages of a page, yet flexibly enough so that the type could again be reused, to print an entirely different page.

Despite the relevance of Gutenberg’s printing press, He was not the first to invent a wholly movable press type. It was originally developed in China. Even as Gutenberg was inventing in Germany, Koreans were ditching their entire method of writing to make printing easier, cutting tens of thousands of characters down to just 28. In Europe, Gutenberg’s printing press spurred the spread of literacy, but its subsequent success would not have been possible without the invention of paper.

Paper was also a Chinese invention, just over two thousand years ago. Obtained from bamboo, at first it was used for wrapping precious objects, but they began to write on it. The Arabic world adopted it but Christians in Europe didn’t use it until much later. The reason was that Europeans just did not need the stuff. They had parchment, which is made of animal skin. Parchment was very expensive. It was a high quality material and it is thanks to it that we have those works of art created by monks in monasteries during the Middle Ages. In this article, we are told that the British Parliament has been been able to keep all the laws passed by it in vellum or parchment, including jewels such as the “magna carta”, signed by king John of England in 1215. Nevertheless, those masterpieces came at a high price. It is reckoned that in order to produce a Bible on parchment, 250 sheep had to be slaughtered.

The apperance of Gutenberg printing press, which allowed a large number of copies of the same work to be printed, led to a fall in the use of parchment, because hundreds of millions of sheep would have had to be reared and slaughtered . It was from then on that the Christian Europe adopted paper as a support for written creation. Paper was relatively cheap, compared to parchment and combined with the Gutenberg’s printing press allowed the spread of literacy, a boom in literary production and the appearance of the first daily newspaper in 1702, the “Daily Courant”, in England. However, this success of the written press caused the demand of paper to soar in such a way that it was almost impossible to satisfy it, especially during the first half of the 19th century.

This situation is explained in depth in the French novel “Les souffrances de l’inventeur” (one of the three installments of the “Illusions perdues” ) by Honoré de Balzac, to whom I already devoted an entry in this blog. Balzac had founded in 1825 a printing shop together with other partners for printing and selling books. Throughout “les souffrances de l’inventeur” or “the sufferings of the inventor” he provides several examples of his expertise on the subject.

The main character is David Séchard, son of a printer and printer himself, who lives in Angoulême and continues his father’s job and business. During the first half of the 19th century, paper was obtained from a pulp in which fibres from used clothing were mixed. Like all good inventors, David was aware of the problem to be solved:

“Des chiffonniers ramassent dans l’Europe entière les chiffons, les vieux linges et achètent les débris de toute espèce de tissus. Ce débris, triés para sortes, s’emmagasinent chez les marchands des chiffons en gros, qui fournissent les papeteries” /(All over Europe ragmen collect rags, old cloths, and buy the remains of all kinds of clothing. These refuse are sorted by type, and stored by the wholesale rag dealers, who supply the paper mills).

There was not enough paper to satisfy its the huge demand , because after the end of the Napoleonic wars, there was a boom in the publication of all kinds of texts and It was increasingly difficult to obtain the rags, remnants of textiles, etc. needed to manufacture paper. In England, in 1660 all shrouds had to be woven in wood and the use of cotton or linen was banned , as the latter could be used for the production of paper. As shown by “les souffrances de l´’inventeur”, all printing professionals were well aware of the need to modify the way paper was obtained.

All over Europe there were ragmen collecting used clothing, rags and all kind of textiles to supply the paper mills. From the struggle to get those rags, came the French expression “se battre comme des chiffonniers”  , with the meaning of “fighting violently”. Likewise, those ragmen were said to scavenge the battlefields depriving dead and even injured soldiers of their blood-stained clothes which were later sold to paper mills.

A French ragman earned more than a skilled worker at the time. Some of them managed to make a fortune. From 1828, they were forced to register and wear a badge. In those years there were over 6.000 officially registered ragmen but they were estimated to be over 35.000.

Paper industry can be considered as one of the first European heavy industries. Ammonium is an ideal composition for separating pulp from cotton. Because of this, human urine was used with that purpose, forming a thick soup that was later dried to form a flexible mat. Besides bleaches and all kind of additives and a huge mechanical energy was needed, usually obtained from fluvial currents that drove paper mills.

The paper industry was a fertile field for innovation, with numerous patented inventions, but if there was a machinery that revolutionised paper manufacture, this was the so called “machine Fourdrinier”. Although there were several relevant inventions and patents, it seems the first inventor was the French Louis-Nicolas Robert, who got a patent on the invention in France in 1799. Afterwards, the brothers Sealy and Henry Fourdrinier, London businessmen, financed an improvement of the machine, which was granted a British patent, number 2487 in 1801. Hence the name that traditionally has been used to call this type of machinery. Actually, what the machine did was to automate a procedure that up to then had been performed manually.

The five stages of the procedure carried put by these machines are:

The forming section makes the pulp into the basis of for sheets along the wire.

The press section, which removes much of the remaining water via a system of nips formed by rolls pressing against each other aided by press felts that support the sheet and absorb the pressed water.

The dryer section of the paper machine, as its name suggests, dries the paper by way of a series of internally steam-heated cylinders that evaporate the moisture.

Calenders are used to make the paper surface extra smooth and glossy. In practice calender rolls are normally placed vertically in a stack.

Máquina Fourdrinier (Around 1850)

Different stages of the “Machine Fourdrinier” (Source: Wikipedia

In the historical achive of the OEPM (Spanish Patent and Trademark Office) several Spanish patents on the “machine Fourdrinier” can be found. For instance, the Spanish patent number ES40190 , filed on the 26th of July 1907 by an applicant from Wisconsin (USA), entitled “improvements to the machines “system Fourdrinier”” . What the machine essentially does is to increase the speed of the machine by speeding up the forming wire.

Drawing from patent ES40190 entitled “Improvements on the machines “system Fourdrinier””

Over two hundred years later improvements on the procedure and the machine Fourdrinier are still patented. The most recent ones are Chinese, like the following utility model:

Bibbliographic data from utility model CN208668156U

Inventions in this field are classified in the subclass D21F, from the IPC (International Patent Classification) as well as from the CPC (Cooperative Patent Classification):

D21F: CPC (Cooperative Patent Classification)) 
D21F: CIP (International PAtent Classification)

The solution to the scarcity of cellulose from used clothes came from wood, that turned out to be a steady source of cellulose, procedure that spread throughout the world during the second half of the 19th century. A clear conclusion that can be derived from this evolution in the manufacture of”paper” is that the cheaper the paper is the lower its quality is as well. Unlike the books and documents recorded on parchment, that have been able to successfully withstand the test of time , books that have been printed during the last one hundred and fifty years are not expected to last as long but to disintegrate in the future unless extreme and costly conservation measures are taken.

The use of wood pulp caused production of paper to soar. The peak in paper production is thought to have been reached in 2013. Despite the growing level of digitalization, paper will always remain a key material for humanity, though we will probably see fundamental changes in the way it is used. Recently and given the increasing success of e-commerce, the demand of corrugated cardboard is soaring. There are also chances of a return to handwriting and a market niche for luxurious writing implements.


Paper, one invention without which humanity would be very difficult to understand , an invention whose key role was overshadowed by the sudden appearance of Gutenberg printing press while paper evolved slowly over hundreds or even thousands of years. A material that is going through a period of decadence in the face of the pervasive digitization but which will always remain with us.

Leopoldo Belda-Soriano

In Spanish

A significant part of the information included in this post has been taken from the BBC podcast: “50 things that made the modern economy: paper”


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