History of Paper – the beginning

Science the dawn of mankind there was always a need of communication. Some might argue that communication is a beginning of a mankind, if not so then it must be some of its early manifestation. Communication was crucial to a successful survival of human groups, as it is needed for a variety of tasks, especially in coordination, and some of the modern aspects of societies, as work specialization, can’t be imagined without it.

Language is most used as a mean of communication, and as such is a system of symbols with its own logical set of rules with the purpose of exchanging information between subjects. It is implied that both participant in the dialog speak same language (use same set of symbols and rules). There are two forms that language can be manifested: verbal and written form. Of course, it is only logical that the verbal form preceded the written one. Origins of verbal form of language is even today a subject of debate, timeline wise varying from as early as Homo habilis (2.3 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) or Homo heidelbergensis (0.6 million years ago) to modern Homo sapiens with the Upper Paleolithic revolution less than 100,000 years ago. As for the written form of language, its origins are less debatable, due to a timeline much closer to modern history.

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Cuneiform tablet from Baghdad, modern day Iraq. Mesopotamia, date unknown.

It is generally agreed that true writing of language (not only numbers) was invented independently in at least two places: Mesopotamia (specifically, ancient Sumer) around 3200 BC and Mesoamerica around 600 BC. It is debated whether writing systems were developed completely independently in Egypt around 3200 BC and in China around 1200 BC.As of history of paper, we can begin our journey in ancient Egypt around 3000 BC where papyrus was invented. Papyrus was produced from a marsh grass called Cyperous Papyrus and was more like a mat and therefore not the same as the papers of today.

 

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Papyrus scroll, modern reproduction

The Egyptians cut thin strips from the plant’s stem and softened them in the waters of the Nile. These strips were then layered in right angles to form a kind of mat. The mat was then pounded into a thin sheet and left in the sun to dry. Papyrus was since then been used in ancient Greece and Roman Empire, and by the other Mediterranean civilizations of the time.Paper as we know it today was developed in China, and is tied to a Cai Lun, an official attached to the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), although evidence now suggest that paper was used in China even before that. Cai Lun invented (or revolutionized, or just perfected) papermaking process which primarily used rags (textile waste) as the raw material with which to make paper. Paper in China saw a variety in use: wrapping or padding protection for delicate bronze mirrors, padding of poisonous ‘medicine’, toilet paper and became widespread material for writing by the 3rd century AD. The Chinese scholar-official Yan Zhitui (531-591) wrote on one occasion: “Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes”. From there, paper spread to Japan, Korea, Tibet and Vietnam (between the III and VI century AD).

In year 751 AD Chinese army was defeated by the Arab Abbasid Caliphate along with their ally the Tibetan Empire and invention of paper spread the Middle East. Manufacturing of paper begun in Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan by 751, in Baghdad by 793, in Egypt by 900, and in Fes, Morocco around 1100 AD. The laborious process of paper making was refined and machinery was designed for bulk manufacturing of paper. Production began in Baghdad, where a method was invented to make a thicker sheet of paper, which helped transform papermaking from an art into a major industry. From there, invention of paper spread to Europe when the Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and Portugal. Papermaking entered Europe in the 12th century.

Read more on history of paper next week!

Душан Димитриев
Dušan Dimitriev

Photo (1) Item given for photographing, owner of tablet wishes to remain anonymous.

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