China: birthplace of paper

AD 105

The birth of paper, as we know it today, took place under the Chinese Han Dynasty in AD 105. Ts'ai Lun, a court official, invented a papermaking process which primarily used rags (textile waste) as the raw material with which to make paper.

Chinese papermakers subsequently developed a number of specialities such as sized (paper with special surface properties), coated and dyed paper. Further advances saw paper designed to be resistant to insects and the use of a fibre-yielding plant - bamboo - which was de-fibred by cooking in lye

Papermaking and innovation went hand-in-hand and the papermakers enabled China to develop its civilisation more rapidly, but they did encounter problems satisfying the growing demand for paper for governmental administration.

Papermaking spreads across Asia, Middle East and Europe

AD 610

Chinese papermaking techniques reached Korea at an early date and were introduced to Japan in the year 610. In these two countries paper is still made by hand on a large scale in the old tradition, i.e. from the fresh bast (inner bark) fibres of the mulberry tree (known as kozo in Japanese). Following the cooking process, the long, uncut fibres are simply prepared by beating, which gives the paper its characteristic look and excellent quality. The latter is due, among other things, to multiple, rapid immersions of the mould which results in a multi-layer fibre mat.

Very soon, knowledge of papermaking spread to Central Asia and Tibet and then on to India. As the Arab world expanded eastwards it too became acquainted with the production of paper and paper mills were set up in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and later in Morocco, Spain and Sicily.

Owing to the lack of fresh fibres, the predominant raw material used was rags. Although the pulping process, such as breaker mills, produced a rather inferior ground pulp, the Arab papermakers used screens made of reeds when filtering the pulp which produced thin sheets which were then ‘coated' with starch paste. This gave Arabian paper its good writing properties and fine appearance.

European papermakers continue the innovation

14th Century

The export of the technique of papermaking to Europe, especially to Italy, has been well documented. From the 13th century onwards, papermakers at two early Italian centres, Fabriano and Amalfi, tried to improve upon the Arabian technique.

The Italian papermakers introduced a series of improvements to the papermaking process:

  • the use of water to power the machinery
  • the stamping mill was used to produce pulp more efficiently (derived from the machines used in textile handicrafts)
  • the mould made of wire mesh (as a result of progress in wire production), which triggered the introduction of couching on felt
  • the paper press with slides for feeding in the material, which quickens the drying process
  • the drying of the sheets of paper on ropes
  • the introduction of dip sizing - sizing is when a substance is applied to paper to change its surface properties, e.g. to improve strength or reduce absorbency of water

In the course of the rapid expansion of trade in the late Middle Ages, paper merchants were dealing with a commodity that was growing in importance for European public and intellectual life.

The first documented papermaking on German soil was in 1390 when the Nuremberg councillor Ulmann Stromer commissioned a paper mill. His mill was initially designed with 2 waterwheels, 18 stamping hammers and 12 workers using one or two vats.

Literature and literacy supported by paper mills’ increasing productivity

16th Century

The advantages of mill-based papermaking spread throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Germany, by the end of the 16th century there were 190 mills.

Work at the paper mill was typically carried out by a four man team: the vatman took the pulp from a vat and made the sheet using a mould; the couch squirt, who worked in harmony with the vatman, placed the sheet on absorbent felt; the layman, who drew off the still moist sheets from the felt after pressing; and the apprentice, who had to feed material into the vat and maintained the heating of the vat. Up to nine reams (4,500 sheets) of paper could be made in the course of a working day of around 13 hours.

Papermaking technology improves - demand for paper increases

17 &18th Centuries

Technical progress continued throughout the 17th Century. The invention of the ‘Hollander beater' confirmed the Dutch as being at the forefront of papermaking technology. It was a much more efficient way to make pulp compared with the stamping mill, which it began to replace, dividing papermakers into traditional versus modern camps.

Meanwhile, improvements in the printing process, namely the introduction of movable type, greatly increased demand for paper. It led to a serious shortage of raw materials and to regulations governing the trade in rags, the primary raw material for making paper.

The 18th century saw the establishment of larger-scale operations. Such ‘manufactories' were dependent on skilled papermakers who were organised into craft groups. The search for innovations to step up production and to have as many of the jobs done by machine as possible (partly to overcome the constraining rules of the papermakers) culminated in the design and construction of new papermaking machines.

The initial model built, by J.N.L. Robert in 1798, was the first flat-screen papermaking machine. The design was further developed in England, mostly by Donking and the Fourdrinier brothers. Additionally, the French chemist Claude-Louis Bertholett invented the chemical bleaching of pulp in 1785. The French Revolutionaries were probably the first to use really white paper.

Emergence of wood based paper and increased mechanisation

19th Century

The systematic search for substitute raw materials with which to produce paper in Europe proved difficult. In the early 18th century straw was used as a raw material but it failed to make headway due to quality concerns.

However, in 1843, a solution was at hand, Saxon Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented a wood-grinding machine which produced groundwood pulp suitable for papermaking. This milestone was soon followed by an alternative way to turn wood into paper: chemical pulp was first patented in 1854 by Hugh Burgers and Charles Watt.

Following the invention of the first papermaking machine by J.N.L. Robert in 1798, other machines soon appeared on the market, such as Dickinson's cylinder machine. The machines could continuously fill wire moulds and couch the sheets of paper on felt.

Flat screen and cylinder machines, which were first seen in the 19th century, were continually improved and extended to include a dryer section. This soon led to a considerable widening of the paper web and to an increase in production speeds

Full-scale industrialisation - innovation and specification lead to new paper grades and paper uses

19th & 20th Century

Gradually, the paper production process became fully automated: from the preparatory and pulp production stages through to the papermaking, use of fillers and finishing (including the headbox, wire section, pressing, drying, reeling, smoothing and packaging).

The paper industry developed appropriate industrial plants (groundwood and chemical pulp mills) in order to produce wood based paper on an industrial scale and to meet the demand for this increasingly valued substitute for rags which was set to become the dominant raw material for papermaking.

The second half of the 19th century was marked by the enlargement of the web width, an increase in working speeds due to improvements to various machine parts. Machines were designed specifically for particular paper and corrugated board products, (for example, the Yankee cylinder for tissue paper production). The web working width grew from 85 cm (1830) to 770 cm (1930), while production speeds rose from 5 m/min. (1820) to over 500 m/min. (1930).

In the past 50 years the rate of innovation in papermaking has increased rapidly. New materials have been developed (using thermo-mechanical pulps, recovered paper and new fillers). New sheet forming options and neutral sizing have been accompanied by a greater awareness and focus on environmental impacts.

New products and solutions are constantly being developed to meet the most complex of challenges. And it's not just the finished products which have changed.

The continuous evolution of paper technology and production processes has increased speed, productivity and enhanced production quality whilst becoming increasingly responsive to environmental concerns. New technologies are in place to make paper lighter, reduce energy consumption and to generate biofuels.

Innovation has also led to greater specialisation by paper makers, for example in the development of new paper grades such as LWC - lightweight coated paper (mainly used in magazines, flyers and inserts such as coupons); and some paper groups have acquired their own raw material supply and trading organisations.

21th Century & beyond…

21th Century & beyond…

Paper is an amazing product: it is renewable, clean and incredibly versatile. It continuously offers new possibilities, applications and end-uses.

Paper can be impregnated, enamelled, crêped, waterproofed, waxed, glazed, sensitised, bent, folded, twisted, crumpled, cut, torn, dissolved, moulded and embossed. Who knows to what uses it will be put in the future?

Today, intelligent paper used in packaging allows us to see clearly if products are past their sell-by date by changing colour, printed electronic circuits can be used instead of traditional heavy circuit boards, scratch and sniff books bring learning to life, radio identification tags allow products to be traced at every stage, and even batteries can be made from paper.

What is sure is that the European pulp and paper industry will continue to change and adapt to new market conditions, responding to consumer requirements, and moving closer to its vision of integrated sustainability and competitiveness.

Paper mills have improved enormously from an environmental point of view (waste water, emissions, etc.) as well as from an efficiency point of view (see Environment section).

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