Inventor of Paper
Ts’ai Lun was born about the year 50 in what is now the Hunan province of China. The events of his early life are unknown.
In the year 75 he was employed at the court of the Emperor Ho Ti in Beijing, and by the year 97 he had become head of a group of engineers producing swords and other instruments.
In the year 105 Ts’ai Lun announced to the Emperor the invention of paper.
The papermaking process involved macerating a combination of tree bark, hemp scraps, rags, and fish nets (made of plant matter) into a pulp of individual cellulose fibers. The pulp was soaked in water and then lifted onto a sieve like screen, yielding a sheet of matted fiber that could be written upon. Cheaper than silk and less cumbersome than wood and bamboo, paper quickly replaced these traditional Chinese writing materials.
An outline of Ts’ai Lun’s life compiled in the fifth century states that in the year 106 Ts’ai Lun was made a private counselor in the Emperor’s court, and in the year 114 he gained the honorable title of Marquis for his many years of service. The story tells of Ts’ai Lun’s demise: the Empress ordered Ts’ai Lun to circulate slanderous rumors about a member of the Imperial family; upon the Empress’s death, Ts’ai Lun was ordered to face judgment and he poisoned himself. The year was 121.
Ts’ai Lun’s Legacy
Few inventions have been as widely used as that of paper; it is one of the most common and versatile manufactured items in the modern world.
During the first several centuries following Ts’ai Lun’s invention, paper was known only in China, where it was used as a writing surface and for crafting ornaments. In the seventh century, paper was brought to Japan, where paper making was rapidly adopted. The first text printing followed directly from the introduction of paper. To drive out a smallpox epidemic sweeping Japan, a number of miniature pagodas were to be constructed, each with a prayer carved on the bottom. The prayer imprints were dipped in ink and printed on paper.
Paper traveled west in the seventh century as well. First appearing in Turkestan (now Afghanistan), paper spread to Baghdad, Damascus, Egypt, and then Morocco. It made its way to southern Europe (through either Italy or Spain), but not until the twelfth or thirteenth century.
Paper was at first rejected in Europe, as it was more costly and fragile than the parchment (stretched dried animal skins) then widely used for bookmaking. Paper was eventually recognized as superior it took up less space, it was easier both to write on and transport, and its source was more abundant.
When JOHANNES GUTENBERG devised the first printing press in the midfifteenth century the design of the equipment was dictated by the properties of the paper available. Europeans were using paper made of linen and cotton fibers overlaid with a hard surface of gelatin; this hardness required heavy metal types and a forceful pressing mechanism.
Most modern paper is produced by machine, but the basic process is similar to the one developed by Ts’ai Lun. Paper has an uncountable number of everyday applications and its availability is largely taken for granted today. Demand for paper is so high that an alarming percentage of the world’s forests continue to be cut down each year, as wood fiber is the most common component in the paper making process; the practices of recycling and replanting have only partly alleviated the problem.
Ts’ai Lun – c.50-121