Write it Down

by Deb on May 7, 2012


I didn’t start on purpose, but this is turning into a little series on how some of the things we use the most have developed and changed. So far I’ve looked at cheese and milk bottle packaging. I enjoy history and archaeology, and I think the way we use materials and the effects of social changes on our priorities is very interesting, when I put the schedule together it just happened. Today I’m going to look at the things we write on before they disappear into the past and the paperless office becomes reality.

Humans have been recording things for thousands of years – it’s part of being human to collect and pass information on, whether you think you are passing it to your relatives or the future. The first records that we can find are carved artefacts and cave paintings, but they must have been accompanied by a rich oral tradition. In order for oral cultures to work, knowledge is passed on far more formally than most of us imagine. The songs, chants and stories of traditional Aboriginal society weren’t just fun ways to pass the evening but contained a wealth of knowledge on how to survive in the area in good times and bad. The chants and social rules, along with traditional patterns, dances and drawings were directly taught mnemonics. It is possible that this type of mnemonic aid to oral systems is behind monumental architecture across the world, including Stonehenge.

At the same time, there is intriguing new evidence of symbols in cave art. Repetition of simple circles and triangles, use of symbols such as mammoth tusks, and double figures reminiscent of early pictographs seem to be common to different sites across France. It’s not epic prose, but rather the same type of reminders for oral traditions gradually becoming more like writing.

cuneiformThe earliest writing we know of was inventories and lists in Sumeria. This fits with the oral mnemonic idea – for relatively static and important information like the cycle of seasonal changes or animals in the area it makes sense to build a monument or a song cycle. But not for the amount of wheat you harvested this year. That type of ephemeral information is not something a large group of people need to learn and remember, so why not write it down. These early records were punched into clay with a stylus.

As records became more complicated and writing more important, something easier than clay was needed. In Egypt in the Nile delta there is a reed called papyrus. After cutting the outer rind off, the inner pith is sticky and can be cut into long thin strips. These were laid on a flat surface slightly overlapping each other. Then another set of strips were laid across the top in the other direction so there were fibres going both ways for strength. They were pressed together and hammered, then dried to form long scrolls. These worked well in a dry climate like Egypt, but in wetter Europe they soon rotted.

This is an early example of the pressure of monopolies and resource over-use. Papyrus reeds became increasingly over-harvested and scarce, eventually becoming extinct in Egypt (although they have now been re-introduced). The uncertainty of supply and reliance on a single source encouraged people to experiment with other media for recording.

parchmenterA better alternative in Europe was parchment or vellum, made from sheep, goat or calf skin. They were treated differently to leather and not tanned, and they could be folded to make books rather than scrolls. They lasted far longer than papyrus and could be made anywhere. Skins contain a lot of collagen fibres and a natural glue, similar to the sticky, fibrous papyrus. They were treated in a variety of ways to allow ink to penetrate them.

Paper was invented in China around 105 AD, credited to a government official called Ts’ai Lun. He used basically the same technique you can use today, soaking finely cut rags and bark for fibres, then packing them onto a frame, pressing and drying them. It spread through imperial China, with many people experimenting with different fibres and coatings to produce paper for different purposes. As papermaking spread through Arabia and into Europe parts of the process were mechanised to make it easier and quicker.

For a long time paper was still made of old rags, but these could be difficult to come by. The Black Death ‘helped’ as it meant tons of rags and old clothes were available, right around the time printing presses became widely used. (Printing was also invented in China.) People searched for a substitute source of fibres, but the next step forward in paper production came from watching paper wasps. They chew up wood to produce their nests, and in 1843 Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented a wood grinding machine to make pulp. Only a few years later in 1854 Hugh Burgers and Charles Watt produced chemical wood pulp. Combined with the paper making machines of the industrial revolution, this allowed commercial scale paper production such as we have today.

paper wasp

Paper wasp by Sanjay Acharya

The paperless office was supposed to arrive a couple of decades ago, but I think we use even more now. Who knows, with mobile devices like smartphones and tablets and storage in the cloud it might actually happen. That probably won’t be the end of paper, but it will move on to different uses. Waterproof papers for packaging, smart paper to detect heat and chemicals or embedded circuits for simple disposable machines might be the future of paper.

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