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Paper was invented in China around 100 BCE. Its use spread through war and via the Silk Road. Paper is used every day in the house, in business, at school, etc., and it is the material on which our history is written and preserved.

Development of Paper

The invention of writing material dates back to ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used the papyrus plant to make a thick, paper-like material on which to write. The word “paper” comes from papyrus. There are many predecessors of modern paper, which are collectively referred to as "tapa,"; papyrus is only one of them. They were made of the paper mulberry, fig and daphne trees. While papyrus was technically the first form of paper, it is not the same as the paper that was later invented in China, and that is used today.

Paper was invented in China around 100 BCE. In 105 AD, Ts'ai Lun, an Imperial Court official, started the paper-making industry. He was later deified as the god of paper-making. Ts'ai Lun made paper by mixing finely-chopped mulberry bark and hemp rags with water, mashing it to flatten it and push the water out, and drying it in the sun. It is speculated that he based his idea off bark cloths, which were also made from mulberry bark and very common in China. Ts'ai Lun's invention was improved with the addition of fish nets to the pulp. Paper quickly spread throughout China. Buddhist monks started to explore methods of mass-producing prayers, and by 650 AD, they were block-printing prayers. Block-printing involved putting ink on a carved block of wood and pressing the paper against it to make a copy.

It took some time for the use of paper to spread via the Silk Road. People in India were using paper by the 400's AD, and Korea and Japan started using it by the 600's AD, although with different ingredients. Legend says that a Korean Buddhist monk, Don-cho, introduced the art of paper-making to the Japanese Emperor Kotoku. Paper was traded on the Silk Road, and was advantageous because it absorbed ink and ink couldn't be erased, which made forgeries more difficult. By 800 AD, Islamic manufacturers were making their own paper, and it was no longer purchased from China, Central Asia or India. By the time paper reached West Asia, people were making books, rather than the scrolls traditionally used in India and China. Soon, China also started to use the book format and invented movable wooden type.

Meanwhile, Europe was still using parchment and buying paper from the Egyptians for a high price. By 1250 AD, Egyptian paper-making technology reached Italy where it was made and then sold throughout Europe. Egypt's paper industry was destroyed after the Bubonic Plague, and French monks began to make their own paper. Soon, Europeans were using water wheels to power paper mills to make paper cheaply and began exporting paper to North Africa, Mamluk Egypt, and West Asia. The Aztecs had invented their own paper independently by this time. They used agave plant fibres to make the paper and books. By this time China was using paper in different ways, including cards, kites, and fans.

In 1453 AD, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, and the first paper industry in North America was established in 1690 in Philadelphia. Paper production was industrialized in the 19th century and ceased to be an artisan activity. The invention of paper - and the subsequent development of the printing press - changed the world. It led to Europe's reformation, and the spread of science, novels, the newspaper, textbooks, and so much more. Paper is also used as packaging, decoration, and toilet paper. The process and materials have changed and improved over time. Today, paper is often made from recycled paper and cardboard, but logging still occurs on a mass scale and has an adverse effect on the environment. Even as digital technologies take over, it is very unlikely that our everyday use of paper will ever cease.

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Examples of the Effects of Paper

  • Led to the invention and use of toilet paper.

  • Information and knowledge including prayers, history, recipes, and more could be preserved and transmitted.

  • Atarted an industry and led to the development of many others including publishing and the lumber industry.

  • Allowed humans to communicate more efficiently over long distances.

  • Led to the invention of other technology including block-printing and the printing press.

  • Paper has seriously and negatively impacted the environment due to logging and pollution from paper mills.

Learn more about inventions and discoveries that have changed the world in our Picture Encyclopedia of Innovations!
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