The Long, Complex History of Humans and Paper

It’s been a staple of human communication for more than 2,000 years when paper was invented in China. And it radically changed mankind’s ability to retain and transmit our collective knowledge.

Prior to paper’s invention, explains Marcia Wendorf in Interesting Engineering, written communication was tedious and expensive.

“Before the invention of paper, people wrote on clay tablets, papyrus, parchment and vellum. In ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Iran, cuneiform characters were placed on wet clay tablets with a stylus made from a reed,” Wendorf writes.

“… the Chinese wrote on pieces of bamboo or on silk, but silk was expensive, and bamboo was heavy,” she continues. “Officially, paper was invented in 105 A.D. by a Chinese court official named Ts’ai Lun, but in 2006, a fragment of a paper map bearing Chinese characters and dating from 200 B.C. was found at Fangmatan in northeast Gansu Province.”

Interestingly, the technology behind papermaking was often a closely guarded secret, with the Europeans lagging behind Asia and the Arab world. And it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that paper began to be commonly made from wood. Previous to that it was made of tree bark, hemp and other plant fibers, even rags, rice straw and seaweed.

By that time, the Industrial Revolution transformed life as we know it, as pencils were mass produced and fountain pens became widely used. Publishing for the masses – in newspapers, schoolbooks and other printed books – was here to stay.

It’s hard to think of a medium in our culture with a longer, more interesting history and staying power. Do we really think the 20-year-old digital revolution will eliminate paper from the human experience?