Papermaking/History of paper

The history of paper started just after the start of the Gregorian calendar.

The papyrus plant
The papyrus plant
The papyrus plant



Paper is derived from the Greek word pápyros, the name for the papyrus plant. This plant grows only on the shore lines of streams in the Middle East, like the river Nile (a river in Africa which flows into the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt). The "paper" from the papyrus plant was first used by the Babylonians and thereafter by the Egyptians (around 3000 B.C.). Also the Greeks and Romans used papyrus, amongst others for contractual obligations.

The "paper" from the papyrus plant was made from the stem of the plant. The outer rind is first stripped off, and the sticky fibrous inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips. The strips are then placed next to each other on a hard surface with their edges slightly overlapping, and then another layer of strips is laid on top at a right angle. While still wet, the two layers are hammered together, mashing the layers into a single sheet. The moisture or juice from the strips function as adhesive between the layers. The sheet is then dried under pressure.

Other early information carriers


The oldest known information carriers are cave paintings. The paintings tell us about ordinary life in those days. The Sumer wrote with cuneiform script on soft clay tablets around 3200 B.C. This is about the same time when the Egyptians used soapstone. Other organic information carriers, besides papyrus, were leather, parchment, wood and bark. The Romans also used wax for texts which did not need to last for a long time. Especially for buildings the texts were inscripted into the stone of the building. The early Chinese also used materials like shells, bones and ivory. The early Indians uses leaves of palms. Also used as information carrier were jade, iron, gold, silver, tin, bronze, bamboo and silk.

Early paper production by the Chinese
Early paper production by the Chinese

Invention of paper


Paper made out of plant-like fibres was invented by the Chinese Cai Lun, who in the 2nd century China, mixed textile fibres from the bark of the mulberry in water and produced sheets of paper from that. The invention of paper was one of the reasons for the successes of early China, through easier governing of the country.

Archaeological findings have shown that paper was first made from plantlike fibres, were already used from 140 to 87 BC.

Papermaking knowledge moves out of China


The art of papermaking was first exported from China to Korea and Japan around 610 AD. Arabic people have learned the papermaking technique in the 8th century from Chinese, as is being told, from Chinese people skilled in papermaking who were captured. The Arabic people spread the knowledge during their military campaigns in the North of Africa and the South of Europe. The first paper manufacturing in Europe started in 1144 in Xativa (near Valencia) in Spain. The first papermaking in countries in Europe, which were not controlled by the Arabians, was in the 13th century in Italy and Spain, although the usage of paper was already known in Europe since about 1100. A paper mill in Fabriano (near Ascona) in Italy existed in 1276 (and still exists nowadays). Around this time sizing paper with animal glue was invented in Italy. The Germans had their first paper mill in 1389, followed by the rest of Europe at the end of the 15th century. In Belgium the first paper production was in Huy (Hoei) in 1405 and in Holland in Dordrecht in 1586.

Papierproduction before the mechanisation of papermaking
Papierproduction before the mechanisation of papermaking

Where was the paper production located


The ideal location for paper production was determined by two factors:

  • The presence of raw materials
  • The accessibility to power and energy

The presence of raw materials was, before the invention which made the use of fibres from trees possible, depending on availability of rags. The rags, used clothes, were more available in urban areas. The fibres, which were used for producing paper, were cotton.

The presence of power was necessary for the milling process needed to make fibres fit for papermaking. Wind mills or water mills were used as power sources.

So paper mills in the old days were located at urban areas with access to wind or water power. Nowadays the energy source is not important, so that you can see a trend of concentration of paper industry to the areas where raw materials (old paper and trees) are.

Further mechanisation and development of the paper production


An important invention was made around 1670 and was called the "Hollander". This machine improved the milling process of the fibre much, and made it therefore also possible to use other fibres than cotton from rags. Now also (old) ropes and fishing nets could be used. This increased the availability of raw materials much.

In 1744 the bleaching characteristics of chlorine was discovered and at the end of the 18th century this knowledge was used to bleach cotton, the raw material for paper.

The invention of the paper machine at the end of the 19th century increased mechanisation of papermaking further and therefore increased production capacity. Donkin in England and Robert in France developed the first paper machines. Mongolfier and Fourdrinier developed the concept further; a machine with a forming section (wet end), press section and dryer section was developed. The paper machines used nowadays still have a similar build, so that those machines are still often called Foudrinier machines.

In 1806 another important invention was the sizing of the paper. In order to improve the writing characteristics of a paper you need sizing of paper. Until 1806 this was done with animal gelatine. This process was replaced with aluminium sulphate and rosin size.

Around 1845 it became possible to use fibres from wood. The German Friedrich Gottlob developed a process to free the fibres out of wood with a grinding wheel. The development of alternative raw material sources was strengthened by the short supply of rags and at the same time increased demand for paper. Paper made from stone groundwood pulp had more yellowing due to the presence of lignin, so that quality paper was still produced from rags.

At the end of the 19th century a bleaching process was developed in Scandinavia, which made it possible to remove lignin out of stone groundwood. The yellowing of paper decreased much due to this process, so that cotton fibres from rags lost its importance as raw material for paper.

During the 20th century de technology behind the paper machine developed further, so that the production speed and the quality of the produced paper increased. The use of process control and measurement which started in the sixties made even further improvements possible.

Around 1985 a further important development was made in the bleaching technology for fibres. First the bleaching with chlorine was replaced with bleaching with chlorates and chlorine dioxide (Elementary Chlorine Free = ECF) and after that the development of bleaching process without use of chlorine containing agents, like ozone, oxygen and peroxide (Totally Chlorine Free = TCF).


  • Paper comes from papyrus; a plant
  • The inventor of paper is Cai Lun in 105 (China)
  • Since the 13th century paper is produced in Europe
  • Paper is produced where raw materials and energy are easily available
  • During the 19th century production of paper was mechanized
  • Only during the 19th century the most important raw material for paper: cotton rags was replaced by wood


"The paper is patient."
Marcus Tullius Cicero - Roman statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and philosopher (106 BC - 43 BC)