The History Of Papermaking Part II

Fourdrinier paper-making machine

Papermaking from the 18th to the 19th century


In an earlier blog, we looked at the development of paper from its origins, in 1st century China, when T’Sai Lun developed the first true paper from seeing how bees and wasps converted materials, such as leaves, into a paper like substance. From that start, the making of paper gradually swept westwards, through the Arab countries of the Middle East and north Africa and then, from the 11th century, Europe. For the next five hundred years, despite becoming increasingly refined, there was no change to the laborious, hand processes. Then, in the 19th century, two sudden and dramatic bursts of activity changed everything and not only was the making of paper revolutionised but the whole basis of the industry changed with the introduction of a new base material. In this blog we will look at these transformations, events which created the contemporary paper industry, and the paper we use, today.

The limits to production of a highly skilled hand process were not limited to paper, but whereas the processes of making products, such as cotton cloth, had become industrialised during the 18th century, by 1800, and with just one exception, paper was still made by hand, one sheet at a time, manually dipping a frame with a sieve into a vat of pulp, which was then drained and the resulting sheet of paper dried, usually hung over frames. This process was also restricted in that sheet size was limited by how large a sieve a man could handle.

Papermaking - The First Mechanisation

However, as the 18th century drew to its close, there were many in the paper industry who were looking at how industrialised methods might be applied to papermaking and at one mill in France, and despite the turmoil following the French Revolution, they had had some success. Nicholas-Louis Robert, who worked for the then famous Didiot papermaking company in Essonnes, just south of Paris, invented a machine which introduced the first aspects of mechanisation into papermaking. Robert’s machine, a replica of which is in the Frogmore Paper Mill Museum, and shown here, had a moving screen belt that would receive a continuous flow of stock and deliver an unbroken sheet of wet paper to a pair of squeeze rolls. This still had to be collected manually, hung over a series of cables or bars to dry and then had to be cut, but for the first time it introduced elements of mechanisation. Robert obtained a patent for this, in Paris on 9 September 1798, the original of the machine you see here being completed in the following year.

Nicholas-Louis Robert paper machine
A Replica Of Nicholas-Louis Robert's Paper Machine (circa 1799)

Papermaking Comes To Britain

Robert quarrelled with his employer over the further development of this machine. The patent had been registered in the name of St Leger Didiot, and he felt that with the then instability, and lack of the support, skills and finance for manufacturing ideas in France, it would be better to further develop the ideas in England. But the political situation in France meant he could not travel there. So, he invited his brother-in-law, John Gamble, who at that time was working in Paris on repatriating British nationals, to use his connections in England. Gamble had no papermaking experience but back in London, he was introduced to the brothers, Sealy and Henry Foudrinier, skilled Huguenot paper makers whose father, Paul, had migrated from Groningen in the Netherlands, and who agreed to finance the venture. Together they further developed the machine, and John Gamble was granted a patent in London in 1801.

This machine was more complex than the Robert machine and incorporated a full drying process but its practical application was hampered by technical difficulties. The Foudriniers brought in a skilled mechanic, Bryan Donkin, who worked on the problems and in 1807 Donkin registered the patent, in his name, for an improved ‘Foudrinier’ machine. This became the machine which transformed paper making and even today basic paper making machines are still often referred to as a ‘Foudrinier’. Although there have been many improvements over the two hundred years since the first Foudrinier was created, a lot of them significant, all paper making machines have remained essentially the same as the original Donkin-designed machine, which is shown in the box below.

The Foudrinier Paper Making Machine

The drawing below shows the four distinct operations of a Foudrinier paper making machine:

1 – The ‘Wet End’, or Forming Section, where the pulp, usually with between 5 and 10% solids, is filtered out from the water, as it moves along on a continuous wire mesh;

2 – The Wet Press Section, where the now formed fibre sheet is squeezed in large, felt covered rollers to remove most of the liquid;

3 – The Drying Section, where the pressed sheet is passed around heated rollers, completing the drying process and reducing the moisture content to somewhere close to 5%;

4 – The Calender Section, where the paper is smoothed by, again, being passed around rollers.

Foudrinier paper making machine
Workings of the Foudrinier paper making machine

The drawing shows all these processes clearly, though one point not covered in the description is the dandy roller, above the belt at the wet end. The dandy roller, invented in 1826, allowed for the impression of watermarks, literally just a thinning of the sheet at a chosen point, which had previously only been possible with hand-made papers. Why ‘dandy’? No one knows for sure!

The first of these improved machines was installed at Frogmore Mill at Apsley in Hertfordshire, today a working museum of paper making, and it was close by, also at Apsley, that John Dickinson installed one of the improved Donkin, though Dickinson-modified, machines in 1809. Dickinson went on to make further improvements, registering many significant patents in his name, but it was Donkin who became the central character in this first key phase of industrialisation, such that by 1851 there were some two hundred Donkin-made machines in operation throughout the world.

Donkin & Dickinson - Is Paper Mightier Than The Sword?

Bryan Donkin is one of the great engineering characters of the 19th century and it is surprising that he is not better known. Originally a land surveyor in his native Dorset, he became interested in paper and got himself apprenticed to a paper machinery manufacturer, John Hall, in Dartford, Kent.  He went on to set-up his own business, making moulds for papermakers, then in 1801 he was invited in by the Foudrinier Brothers and John Gamble to tackle the problems they were experiencing with the development of their machine. By the following year, he had established his own company in Bermondsey to exploit his developments, the Bryan Donkin Company, still in existence today but no longer in the paper business or in Bermondsey, and went on to become the pre-eminent engineer in the field.

But that was not all. Donkin went on to invent the tin can, which he patented, to work with Charles Babbage on perfecting the first differential machine, for combining calculations and printing, and with Thomas Telford and Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, on many of their great engineering achievements. He was the ‘go to man’ of the age when you hit an engineering problem.

He overshadowed John Dickinson, no mean inventor himself, who even before he became involved in developing and greatly refining paper machinery, had developed cartridge paper for shells – yes, the same as you might use for drawing today – which cut out the risk of smouldering after discharge, the cause of many accidents, and improved the firing rate of guns, a factor which greatly contributed to the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. So, it wasn’t won on the playing fields of Eton, after all, and given that Wellington described it as “a damned near run thing”, perhaps paper made the difference. Is it paper that is mightier than the sword?

Papermaking Crosses To America

Developments were slower In the United States, where the first mechanised paper mill was opened in 1817, at Brandywine Creek in Delaware, and the first Foudrinier machine was imported in 1827. Doubtless, these developments meant that John Dickinson’s cartridge paper, see box on Donkin & Dickinson, was freely available to both sides in the later civil war, facilitating greatly a parity of mutual destruction!

This new process revolutionised the production of paper of all sorts, with costs tumbling by up to 75% but the very success created a new problem, a shortage of raw material. Rags of cotton and linen were still the major source, supplemented by ‘linters’, the short fibres around the cotton seed and too short for use in fabric. As demand grew, longer cotton fibres began to be used, creating shortages in the cotton fabric industry and pushing up prices, a scarcity exacerbated during the American Civil War. Although it was known that the cellulose structure of wood was similar to the raw materials then in use, no one had seriously studied taking this forward until, in 1845, an ocean apart and quite unknown to each other, though inspired by the same original tract, two inventors developed a process for converting wood bark into pulp for making paper – Charles Fenerty in Nova Scotia and Friedrich Gottlob Keller in Saxony.

Both Fenerty and Keller were influenced by an 18th century French scientist, René Antoine Ferchault de Réamur.  Réamur had made a study of insects, and from these he observed, as had T’sai Lun seventeen hundred years earlier, that wasps and bees made a paper like substance in a way which totally altered the structure of the raw material. He wrote a treatise on this, though, to his own regret, he never pursued his idea, writing in 1741, “I am ashamed not yet to have tried this experiment since it is more than twenty years since I have realised the importance of it and since I have announced it.” It was this treatise which a hundred years later was to have a direct bearing on the next transformative stage in paper making.

An 18th Century Polymath

Though the study of insects was Réamur’s principal interest, as a true polymath of the time, he also received a handsome reward from the state for his work on manufacturing iron and steel and invented the first temperature scale, the 0-80 Réamur Scale This was cast aside from most use during and after the French Revolution by the 0-100 Celsius Scale, but is still used in the manufacture of the most famous of parmesan cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggio and Gran Padano.

Paper Made From Trees

Charles Fenerty’s family were in the lumber business in Nova Scotia, felling and converting trees, but Charles was something of a romantic, he left some thirty-five poems for posterity, and presumably it was his detachment from the everyday business, whenever he could, which led him to read widely, including Réamur’s paper, and to experiment with wood as a basis for a paper pulp. Sadly, although he made some paper, he did not take out a patent and his ideas were stillborn.

Friedrich Keller achieved better success, mainly because he persevered despite a similar initial lack of interest. A weaver in the small town of Hainichin in Saxony, he was dissatisfied with his occupation and read and experimented widely, and it was through this that he came upon Réamur’s writings, working on developing this for seven years before producing an acceptable result. He sent samples to the government, though they were not interested, but then in August, 1845,  he filed a patent in the names of both himself and a local paper specialist, Heinrich Voelter, who had helped him, not least with funding. It was not until 1848 that they built their first machine and, even then, they had problems with commercially grinding the bark, a problem not solved until four years later when Voelter commissioned some grindstones suitable for the task. By this time, the patent had run out, but Keller was too poor to contribute his portion of the renewal fee, so Voelter bought him out, for a sum of around £80, becoming the sole patent holder. By 1852 ground-wood pulped paper was being produced regularly in the mill of H. Voelter & Sons, in Heidenheim, and the wood-grinding machine was a success, too, selling widely throughout Europe and the Americas. It made Voelter a very rich man but left Keller unemployed and penniless.

Chemical Pulping

Over the next decades, the development was both widespread and furious, especially in the United States and in Sweden, not least with the development of chemical pulping, invented in the US but first used commercially in a pulp mill in Sweden in 1867. Mechanical pulping leaves the lignin in the fibre, making for a weaker structure because it keeps the fibres apart. Chemical pulping dissolves the lignin, producing a stronger paper and later, thanks to the further improved Kraft process, paper with long chains of cellulose molecules which are stronger still, making excellent printing and writing papers.

The ability of the Kraft process to accept a wide variety of materials, including recycled material, meant that it became the dominant process by the middle of the twentieth century, though mechanically ground paper is still the principal component in newsprint today. There are now also many hybrid processes that allow for even greater variety of both base material and finished product.

Cotton and other such materials are still used in papermaking for specialised uses, such as bank notes and security papers, and other ingredients can be almost any fibrous substance, for example sisal grass, old clothes – denim paper is made from old denim trousers! – and even dried elephant droppings, since their digestive systems have already done much to break down the base material!

Many of the firms we see as the dominant players in the paper industry today were formed during the latter half of the nineteenth century, firms such as Wiggins Teape in England, now Arjo Wiggins, in 1850, Appleton Paper in the USA in 1853, Clairefontaine in France, in 1858, but these developments are for part three.

Where Did All The Money Go?

There is a sad side to this story; few of those early inventors went on to make much, if any, money from their vision and effort. The Didiot’s were left adrift in France and went bankrupt a few years later, having invested a great deal in trying to make their invention commercially viable; John Gamble faded from view with little recognition and no money from his work; the Foudrinier Brothers, having spent £60,000, received no royalties and went bankrupt in 1810, though Henry Foudrinier was granted a special award of £7,000 in 1841, by a House of Commons committee in compensation for the original patent. Charles Fenerty, as we saw, found little interest, see below for a reproduction of his rather sad letter to his local newspaper, and went on to write more poetry. Whilst Keller fell into poverty, in 1870 several German paper makers donated a small sum of money, which he used to buy a house, and later, from further collections abroad, enough for a worry-free retirement. He did, at least, receive several awards in recognition of his invention.

Messrs. English & Blackadar,

Enclosed is a small piece of PAPER, the result of an experiment I have made, in order to ascertain if that useful article might not be manufactured from WOOD. The result has proved that opinion to be correct, for- by the sample which I have sent you, Gentlemen- you will perceive the feasibility of it. The enclosed, which is as firm in its texture as white, and to all appearance as durable as the common wrapping paper made from hemp, cotton, or the ordinary materials of manufacture is ACTUALLY COMPOSED OF SPRUCE WOOD, reduced to a pulp, and subjected to the same treatment as paper is in course of being made, only with this exception, VIZ: my insufficient means of giving it the required pressure. I entertain an opinion that our common forest trees, either hard or soft wood, but more especially the fir, spruce, or poplar, on account of the fibrous quality of their wood, might easily be reduced by a chafing machine, and manufactured into paper of the finest kind. This opinion, Sirs, I think the experiment will justify, and leaving it to be prosecuted further by the scientific, or the curious.

I remain, Gentlemen, your obdt. servant,


The Acadian Recorder
Halifax, N.S.
Saturday, October 26, 1844

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