From Papyrus to E-Paper (1)


Imagine the long human journey on Earth without documentation. Then, imagine documentation without paper, and see how much we could have missed. At the very beginning, written records were carved on stone, clay, or wax. It was then, around 5000 years ago, that the Ancient Egyptians introduced writing on papyrus, the very first version of paper. Since then, paper has gone through various stages of development, and is now available in various types and forms.


The word “paper” we use nowadays is derived from the Ancient Egyptian invention, papyrus, which is the first paper-like writing surface in human history. Ancient Egyptians made papyrus from a plant of the same name that grew in swamps around the Nile River.

After peeling the outer fibers, the core of the triangular, tall, thick multi-layered stalks of the papyrus plant were sliced and soaked in water to remove their sugary content. They were then dried, flattened and placed side by side in two layers; one vertical and one horizontal. After that, the sheets were pressed and smoothed to be ready as a writing surface; no glue was needed to hold the split stalks together thanks to natural gum in the plant. The sheets were finally joined end-to-end to form papyri rolls.

The introduction of papyri revolutionized record-keeping and the accessibility of the written word, making it possible for us to look back and explore ancient times. Because of its importance, papyrus paper making was a state monopoly in Egypt, and the method of its production was a closely guarded secret. Nevertheless, it later became the main writing material used throughout the Greco-Roman Empire, though most records were still kept in Egypt owing to its dry climate that best preserved them.


In the 2nd century BCE, at the ancient Greek city of Pergamum—currently Bergama in Turkey—parchment was introduced as a new writing surface. Parchments were made of processed animal skin—chiefly sheep, goats, and calves. Finer types of parchment made from the skin of newly-born animals were referred to as vellums; however, the two terms are currently used interchangeably.

The animal skin was dried under tension―usually stretched on a wooden frame―after it was cleaned, de-haired and scraped. Then, it was polished smooth using pumice, and treated with talc or chalk as a final preparation for writing.

Parchment had many advantages over papyrus; it was stronger and more durable. Also, the raw-material needed for making it―animal skin―was readily available everywhere and not limited to one geographic location or certain climatic conditions.

During the period between the 4th century and the 15th century CE, parchments and vellums were the standard writing surfaces of Medieval European scribes. They were used in producing all the famous manuscripts and codices of that time. In the Arab world as well, parchment remained the preferable choice for copying the Qur'an, and other important literary and scientific works.

From the Far East to Europe via the Middle East

Paper, as we know today, was invented in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Historical records show that Cai Lun, an official at the Chinese Imperial Court, reported the invention of paper to the Chinese Emperor in the year 105 CE. Lun’s paper used texture rags, bamboo fibers and the inner bark of mulberry trees. The fact that all these raw materials could be easily found at a very low cost in large quantities made it possible for mass production. Although Chinese paper was far more flexible than papyrus and parchment, it was so thin and translucent that they could only write on one side.

Papermaking gradually spread by the end of the 7th century to Bangladesh, India, Japan, Korea, Nepal, and Pakistan, with no major changes in the making process. During the war between the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Arab Abbasid Empire, the secret of papermaking was obtained from Chinese prisoners captured by Arabs in the Battle of Talas, in 751. The Arabs revolutionized the paper industry, making sheets thicker and much finer in quality. They set up the first paper mills; their production was distinguished by its stout substance and glossy surface.

From there, the paper industry moved to Europe where the first paper mill was built in the 11th century. From the 13th century onwards, papermakers in Italy—Europe’s dominating paper-producing center from where the workmanship spread to other European countries—tried to improve the technique applied by Arabs. The Italians harnessed water power to operate paper mills. They also introduced the process of sizing, or coating paper with different substances to add strength or stiffness, or to reduce absorbency.

In the 17th century, the Dutch invented the “Hollander beater” that replaced mills and became the technology that divided papermakers into traditional versus modern camps. It consisted of an oval tank containing a heavy roll that revolves against a bedplate; it could produce in one day the quantity of paper paste a mill produced in eight days.

Despite the long journey paper has gone through, technology has only transformed that ancient craft into a highly technical industry; the basic operations have not really changed to this day.


Top image: Flying old parchments designed by valadzionak_volha. Credit: Freepik.

This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Spring 2013 issue.

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