RACHNA CHHABRIA

From 5,000 years ago to the present day, the story of paper is remarkable.

It all began more than 5,000 years ago in Egypt. At that time ancient Egyptians wrote on materials made from the papyrus reed, a plant grown in the delta of the Nile. This "plant paper" was made by laying strips of the stem tissue side by side and then sticking them together with a crude kind of paste made from bread crumbs soaked in boiling water.

The secret revealed

Though papyrus travelled all over, it did not travel to Eastern Europe. Europeans had started using animal skins as their writing paper. This material was called parchment and although it was expensive, it had several advantages over the humble papyrus. First, the parchment could be folded over without it cracking unlike papyrus, which had to be rolled up into a scroll, which made it cumbersome for a reader to handle. Second, as both sides of the parchment could be used for writing no space was wasted. The material we use for writing today was invented over a thousand years earlier in China. A Chinese official named Ts' ai Lun made his paper in 105 A.D from a motley assortment of strange ingredients including mulberry and bamboo fibres, fishnets and rags. The Emperor Ho Ti was pleased with the invention and made him an important man in his court. With success going to his head Ts' ai Lun got involved in dangerous business. Unable to face public exposure he committed suicide. The Chinese jealously guarded the secret of papermaking for more than 1,000 years. Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Moors learned it and it was brought to Spain and Sicily. From there it spread throughout Europe and by the 1200s paper mills had mushroomed in Italy and elsewhere. Paper got a big boost when Johannes Gutenberg invented the first practical mechanical printing press in 1455. The next 50 years saw thousands of books being printed all over Europe and the demand for paper grew. Currently the U.S is the world's leading paper producer. Japan, Canada, Russia are the other major producers.