Making Paper

The Chinese are noted for inventing the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing.  In 105, an empirical court eunuch named Cai Lun but sometimes called Ts’ai-Lun was given the credit for inventing paper along with the papermaking process.  Being part of the Chinese court and being the one that brought this invention to the attention of the emperor legitimized his claim for being the inventor.  Paper had essentially been around for several hundred years before it was actually recorded as an invention.  There is no official record of this but legend has it that it probably came from a poor lower class woman who washed clothes.

It is thought that she understood the value of not wasting anything, so when her clothes got tattered and worn out, she would beat the rags to get their fibers.  After spending a whole day beating the rags she let this soak in a tub of water.  The next day when she was dumping out this tub of water she noticed some bits of fiber floating around.  She would pick them out by hand, until one day she decided to strain the water through a cloth instead.  This is when she saw that there was a lot more fiber in there.  She realized that she had been throwing out a lot of fiber over the years, and even though most of it was too small for spinning, she picked out the good bits and left the rest on the cloth.

The next morning to her surprise, that fiber left on the cloth had dried and she was able to peel it off, even though she still did not know what to do with it.  Being so poor she did not want to throw it away, wondering if it might be good for something.  She discovered that she could wipe babies with it and she could fold it into little packets for holding herbs or other items.  One day she decided to add hemp from bamboo and this made better fibers.  She found that it could be used to light fires or make ornaments and she could even make into a hat.  Her neighbors were impressed as they saw this was a good thing, so it caught on and pretty soon many others were straining their water to collect these useful fibers.

Fast forward a few hundred years to the time of the bureaucrat Cai Lun, who was the government official in charge of manufacturing things.  He took the washed inner bark of a mulberry tree and bamboo fibers, and mixed them with water and then he let it soak. He then poured this mixture onto a flat piece of coarsely woven cloth and let the water drain through.  He beat it to a pulp with a wooden mallet to release the fibers from the stem, leaving only the fibers on the cloth.  A paper mold that was constructed out of a sieve of coarsely woven cloth stretched in a four-sided bamboo frame was then used to dip up the fiber slurry from the vat and hold it for drying.  Once this mixture dried, a quality writing surface was created that was relatively easy to make and lightweight.

This invention became a by-product of textile manufacturing and it would take another 1,100 years before paper made its way into Europe.  The invention of paper dramatically changed the world, and although tools and machinery of papermaking today are more complex, they still employ ancient techniques of soaking fibers in water, draining of the water, and then drying into a thin matted sheet.

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