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How the invention of the paper changed the world

It all started with Gutenberg´s printing press. Then it spread to a multitude of uses. From the coffee that we drink in the morning, to the post-its from the office, passing through the envelopes of the mailbox. The paper will stay with us, there are uses that are irreplaceable.

The Gutenberg printing house , created in the 1440s by Johannes Gutenberg - a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany - is widely considered one of humanity's most iconic inventions.

Its creator discovered how to make large quantities of mobile types of a resistant metal and also knew how to set those types, so that they were firm enough to print hundreds of copies of the same sheet and flexible enough to be reused in a completely different impression.

The famous Bibles printed by Gutenberg were so beautifully made that they could be compared to those elaborated from the calligraphy of the monks. Gutenberg's printing press changed the world.

Its invention was a crucial factor in the religious reform of Europe. Contributed to science, made newspapers, the novel, the school text and much more were possible. But it could not have done it by itself without another invention, so essential but much less cheered: the paper.

The paper was another idea from China, some 2,000 years ago. At first they used it to wrap precious objects but almost immediately began to write on it: it was lighter than bamboo and cheaper than silk, could be reused in a completely different impression.

Soon the Arabs were enthusiastic about this invention but the Christians in Europe would not do it until much later: the paper arrived in Germany just a few decades before Gutenberg invented his printing press.

Why did it take so long? Because for centuries Europeans simply did not need paper. They had the parchment, which is made of animal hide. But it was expensive: a Bible written on parchments required the leather of about 250 sheep. Although, as so few people knew how to read and write, production was not massive.

However, with the increase of a sector dedicated to the trade whose daily needs required to keep accounts and draw up contracts, that writing material used by the Arabs began to look attractive.

And the existence of cheap paper made the economy of printing also desirable: the fixed cost of printing was easily offset by the amount of printed copies. The options were to sacrifice millions of sheep or use paper.


And printing is just one of the uses we give to paper. We use it to decorate walls - be it as wallpaper, or with posters and photographs -, to filter coffee and tea, to package milk or juice with boxes made of corrugated cardboard. There is wrapping paper, sandpaper and grease proof paper. There are paper napkins, paper receipts and paper tickets.

And in the 1870s, the same decade that produced the telephone and the light bulb, the British Perforated Paper Company produced a kind of paper that was soft, firm and absorbent: the first toilet paper. The paper may seem charming and crafted but it is basically an industrial product produced on a massive scale. Once Christian Europeans finally embraced the role, they created possibly the continent's first heavy industry.

From paper to wood?

Over the years, the process experienced innovation after innovation: threshing machines, bleaches, paper-based additives faster and cheaper, even though the result of all this was sometimes a fragile substance that turned yellowish and would get teared with time. In the end, paper became a cheap product, ideal for the needs of middle class life.

By 1702 the paper was so cheap that it was used for a product explicitly designated to be thrown away in just 24 hours: the Daily Courant, the world's first newspaper.

And then, an almost inevitable industrial crisis arrived. Europe and the United States became so paper-hungry that they began to run out of textiles to process.

But there was an alternative source of cellulose to make paper: wood. The Chinese knew a long time ago how to do it but the idea had not taken off in Europe.

In 1719 a French biologist, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, wrote a scientific article emphasizing that wasps could make paper nests by chewing wood, so why could not humans do something similar?

His words were ignored for years and when his idea was rediscovered, paper producers noticed that wood is not a raw material so easy to work with and does not contain as much cellulose as cotton rags. Only in the middle of the 19th century did wood become an important source of paper production in the West.

Future of the paper

Currently, paper is increasingly made from itself, usually recycled in the China that invented it. A cardboard box springs from the paper mills of Ningbo, some 250 kilometers south of Shanghai, it is used to package a laptop; the box embarks and crosses the Pacific; the computer is used and the box is recycled in a trash can in Seattle or Vancouver. Then it returns to Ningbo to be reconverted into another box.

Paper sales continue to rise. Computers make it easier to distribute digital documents but printers make it easy to print these documents on paper.

In 2013 the world reached its peak in paper production. Although many of us still prefer to turn the pages of a book or newspaper, the cost of digital distribution is so low that we end up leaning for the cheapest option.

The paper may not be at its best in history but it will survive, not only on supermarket shelves or next to the toilets but also in the office, at home, in the coffee you drink, in the envelopes of the mailbox and a thousand other sites.

The old technologies have the habit of resisting. We still use pencils and candles and more bicycles are produced in the world than cars. Paper has not been just a place to print beautiful pages, it is an element that is part of our daily life.

Source: bbc.com

Image: Getty Images.


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