With the harnessing of steam, paper matured into the product we know and love today. The chief difference between modern paper and its predecessor, manufactured until the nineteenth century, was that wood replaced cotton as the chief ingredient of paper. In the production process itself, the crucial changes have been the use of fossil fuels to replace most human labor—and the enormous mechanical ingenuity that came in consequence. Cotton fiber has not, of course, entirely disappeared. The highest quality papers still contain it. And new ingredients have been added to the fibers. Papers are coated chemically. And the slick sheets we associate with magazines and high-quality advertising flyers contain large amounts of clay—the fibers serving to give the sheet extra strength. Much as reinforced concrete is strengthened by hidden steel rods, so slick paper might now be called reinforced clay.
The making of writing surfaces has always been a complex process—whether the raw material was papyrus, skins, cotton, or wood fibers. We’ve come across a splendid graphical presentation of this complexity in modern paper production thanks to the West Linn Paper Company of Portland, Oregon. We invite you to click through this link and then spend some time absorbing the complexity that paper-making has become. The image will enlarge if you click on it—enabling your to read the text. In this case—as in all things modern—the overview is little more than that. Each of these images, if unpacked, would reveal incredible complexity in detail.
Better yet, why not take a YouTube tour of West Linn’s paper production by clicking on this link… Some of the complexity of making paper will become immediately apparent. Here we have another benefit of modern life. We can actually show you the process—whereas the ancient arts survive only as…well, words on paper.
To make sure that this post will sufficiently honor West Linn, we also use a photograph of the company’s mill as our sole illustration; it is the photo used on the company’s web site here.
Papermaking is a very energy and chemicals-intensive industry. Chemicals are needed to remove the lignin in wood, freeing the fibers, and in bleaching the pulp. In our circles—meaning now Editorial Code and Data, Inc., a company that has charted the development of modern manufacturing for twenty years and counting—the close linkage between fossil fuels and modern methods of production has always been, and continues to be, a hot topic. Thus looking at the 10-step process West Linn makes visible to us in that elegant graphic, leads to a slow, thoughtful shake of the head. What, folks—what will we do when the oil finally runs dry and, in the wild scramble to replace it, coal will be burned, pulverized, hydrogenated, liquefied, and ultimately also consumed in the century which we’ve just entered. When that times comes “technology” as a whole will also vastly diminish, not least electronics, e-readers, and such. Thus one thing is certain. Papermaking will continue—and the knowledge gained during the Age of Oil will still be utilized effectively in the coming Age Without. But it will cost much more, someday. The history of paper is by no means ended. With some shivers we look forward to its future course…