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On Paper

The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History

By Nicholas A. Basbanes
16-minute read
Audio available
On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Paper: we use it so much we don’t realize how fundamental it is to our society. We don’t just record our thoughts on it, we base our currency on it, use it for entertainment and employ it for hygiene. These blinks of On Paper (2013) outline the history of this simple but amazing tool.

  • Students of history, sociology or politics
  • Anyone who has ever used toilet paper
  • Origami fans

Nicholas Basbanes is a former literary editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. He’s written several books, including A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, and his work has been featured in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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On Paper

The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History

By Nicholas A. Basbanes
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
On Paper: The Everything of its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas A. Basbanes
Synopsis

Paper: we use it so much we don’t realize how fundamental it is to our society. We don’t just record our thoughts on it, we base our currency on it, use it for entertainment and employ it for hygiene. These blinks of On Paper (2013) outline the history of this simple but amazing tool.

Key idea 1 of 10

Paper, a dried composite of water and cellulose, was developed in China.

We rarely pause to remember that paper once revolutionized the world. But where does paper come from?

Most historians consider paper to have been developed in China in AD 105 by Cai Lun, a man who created tools and weapons for the royal court of Emperor Ho Ti. There is some dispute, however. Historian Tsien Tsuen-Hsuin argues that fragments found in 1957 in an ancient Chinese tomb are the oldest known pieces of paper – they date back to 140 BC. These specimens, along with others found in different locations in the region, suggest that paper changed over time.

So what exactly is paper? Paper is made from a mixture of water and bits of pulverized cellulose that are sieved and dried. The cellulose can be made from tree bark, old fishing nets, cloth, hemp from rope, cooked straw, boiled banana peels, crushed walnut shells or a number of other materials. In short, paper is made using a screen mold by combining water with any material containing cellulose fiber.

The process whereby cellulose fibers attach to each other through molecular cohesion is called hydrogen bonding. This bonding is what makes paper different from papyrus, though the word “paper” comes from papyrus.

Papyrus is made from dried pieces of stalk from the papyrus plant, a marsh reed. These bits of stalk can be attached to one another because of chemicals released by the plant.

Paper arrived in China at just the right time. Alternatives to paper, like silk and stone, were inconvenient because they were either too expensive or too cumbersome.

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