Middle Ages Technologies

Paper in Our Lives

by Zachary Lapierre

Cai-Lun's invention of paper is considered one of the most amazing and important inventions of all time, because it enabled China to create and develop their civilization quickly and eventually it helped us advance in our civilization as well. We use paper all around the globe, and if it wasn’t for Cai-Lun we wouldn’t have all the beautiful things we have today. Paper is all around us, even if we don’t notice it.

Each person in the U.S.A. uses about 675 pounds of paper every year! You’d be surprised at all of the things that we use that have paper in it. We read over 2 billion books, 350 million magazines and 24 BILLION newspapers! Even when you go to the theater you use paper: tickets, containers for popcorn, candy and drinks, carry-out trays for these foods and drink items. These ALL use paper in them. Even items around your home, like batteries, board games, paper dolls, paper masks, paper kites and even your television has paper in it.

Or what about at school and work? Computers are supposed to help make a non-paper society, but they actually create more paper in the world! We now generate more paper than ever before because of computers!

Many items in our work life include paper, such as money, stock certificates, deeds of ownership, checks etc. Just about all of the documents we use to run our lives are made out of paper! Even packaging uses paper, paperboard is probably the most used form of paper in our life, how else would we ship fragile items like light bulbs and microwaves?! Plus if you’re ever in danger or in an emergency, you can ALWAYS make a quick shelter out of paperboard.

Many historians say that paper is and was the key element in global cultural development and advancement. Just imagine a world without paper, life would be very difficult. According to certain studies the Chinese culture was less developed than the west in the ancient times prior to the Han Dynasty, because bamboo (which is abundant) was a much clumsier writing material than papyrus. But then Chinese culture advanced SO MUCH during the Han Dynasty and other dynasties because of the invention of paper. And even Europe advanced during the Renaissance thanks to the introduction of paper and the printing press. (Paper helped everyone around the world.) Paper is considered one of the four great inventions of ancient China along with the compass, gunpowder and printing.

But where did it all start? What is the history of paper? Before paper the Chinese wrote on bamboo and bone and even silk, but silk was just too expensive to always write on. So the Chinese people created the idea of writing and drawing on papyrus. Papyrus grows abundantly along the Nile River which is mostly in Egypt. Papyrus is a very reedy plant and the parts that the Chinese wrote on were certain sliced areas of the flower stem of this papyrus plant. Then that stem part is pressed together and dried out so people can write on it. This papyrus was very nice, but they needed something else......but what?.......

Then, eventually Cai (or Ts'ai)-Lun invented the product of paper. But there is a story behind this...

Cai-Lun was born in Guiyang , China during the time of the EasternHan Dynasty.

When he was older Cai became a paperwork secretary of the Emperor He. For papermaking Cai had tried certain materials like hemp, bark, silk and even fishing net, until he finally decided to use wood pulp (which is from the pulpwood tree.) Sadly though his exact formula for papermaking has been lost in history. Emperor He was so pleased with Cai's invention of paper that he gave Cai an aristocratic title and amazing wealth! Cai then became a court official because of his honor and wealth. He died by commiting suicide in jail by drinking poison, but that's a story for another time...

 


 

Unlike our normal paper that we use today Chinese paper was VERY thin and translucent (partly see-through.) So they could only write on one side of paper, it was just too thin to write on both sides.

The invention of paper spread slowly outside of China to other East Asian countries and cities. Even after seeing paper, people could not figure out how to make it by themselves! Too bad for them. The people then demanded that they learn the manufacturing of paper, but China refused to give away their secret of papermaking. They were reluctant to give up their secrets of making paper.

After more commercial trading and the defeat of the Chinese in the Battle of Talas (they were defeated by the Arab Abbasids, the war was about the control over central Asia), the paper invention went all around the Middle East. Production started in Baghdad , the Arabs invented a way to make a thicker sheet of paper.

This papermaking had spread to Damascus by the time of the first crusade, the war had interrupted the paper production. It split the production into two centers:

Iran: This was the center of thinner papers which was adopted by India.

Ciaro: This was the center that kept making thicker paper.

Then the first paper mill in Europe was developed in Spain. In Spain the mill was in the city of Xavia (modern day Valencia) in the year 1120. Later more mills were built in Fabriano, Italy. This was in about the 13th century when paper was first introduced to Europe. The Europeans used linen and hemp rags as a source of fiber. The oldest paper document known in the West is the Mozarab Missal of Silos. (This was probably written in Islamic Spain.)

Paper in our life today differs much from the old style of Chinese paper, paper now is thin (but not too thin) material that is produced by the amalgamation of fibers, usually vegetable fibers. Vegetable fibers usually contain cellulose which are subsequently held all together by a process called hydrogen bonding. Sometimes the fibers used can be synthetic, but usually the fibers are natural.

The most used fiber is wood pulp, which is from (of course) pulpwood trees. But sometimes companies will use softwoods, hardwoods, spruce and aspen trees as well. Other kinds of vegetable fibers are: Linen, hemp, cotton and rice.

Papermaking is very complicated and long to describe, so here is a quick synopsis of how they make the paper...

Fiber Processing/Pulping is when certain fibers are split from each other and carbohydrate surfaces are exposed. Hydrogen bonding between these carbohydrate surfaces gives paper its strength. Fibers can be split three different ways: mechanically, chemically or a combination of the two.

Drying is what must happen after the paper-web has been produced, the water in it must be removed for it to be a regular and usable piece of paper. This is all done by forcing and pressing and then drying the paper. This takes out all of the water and gives you the paper that you use so much today.

Like I said in the beginning, Cai's invention is considered one of the most amazing and important inventions of all time, mostly because paper enabled China to create and develop their civilization much faster, unlike their old materials (bone, silk, bamboo etc...) This did the same for Europe when paper was introduced to Europe in the 12th (or the 13th) century, and then in the U.S. many years later.

(BUT! There have been studies in 2006 that show specimens bearing certain writings on them).

So we don't know if Cai-Lun was the FIRST person to use paper, but we do know he was the one who started the whole trend of using paper all around the world today. So really, our thanks does belong to Cai-Lun, because without him paper would have never been invented, and our civilization would be almost IMPOSSIBLE!

 

Home