History of Paper and Printing: Ancient to Modern Applications

How important was the invention of paper for the advancement of civilization? The answer is immense. From the development of writing to the knowledge explosion of the Industrial Revolution, paper has shaped our way of understanding almost everything we humans have to offer.

Imagine a life without paper. The spread of knowledge, history, passing instruction, entertainment, translation, etc., would have to rely on oral communication. Now think of how the consequence of oral communication would have on our need to perform everyday functions. Reliable information is what paper can provide. knowledge can be provided to the masses that can last multiple generations. It is with writing and paper that something so permanent and accurate can be transported with such efficiency.


Almost as valuable as language itself, it is important to understand that without paper the development of civilization would be much slower. Information is power, and the invention of paper is one of its most powerful tools. So to enter the world of papermaking we must first examine how its predecessors or paper prototypes came to be.

Early Papermaking Techniques

The earliest papermaking techniques involved several methods that mainly from stone, bark, animal skins, wood, clay, and plant fiber.

 There are examples from all over the world that mark its language in this pre-paper era. Egyptians carved hieroglyphs in stone and later on sheets of papyrus fiber. Sumerians had etched a written language called cuniform in stone and clay tablets.

Middle ages, Romans, and the Byzantine Empire used wax tablets before the invention of paper to write. Encased in a wooden frame was soft wax so that people were able to write. Wax tablets were useful as they could easily be reused by melting the wax and letting it harden repeatedly.

Image of a wood and wax writing tablet from the coptic made in Byzantine Egypt year 500-700.
Rogers Fund, 1914. The Met Collection API, The Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Ancient China

While there are debates regarding the origins of paper, the majority of historians give credit to Ts’ai Lun (Cai Lun) in ancient China. Ts’ai Lun was born in Guiyang China (now Leiyang) around 50 CE and invented paper in 105 CE. He worked as a government official and one of his duties was to create a writing material that was easy to use. He was credited in the fifth century by scholar Fan Ye in the official records of the Han Dynasty.

Ts’ai Lun’s method of papermaking involved finely chopped mulberry bark and hemp rags and mashing them into a paste using water. He when pressed the paste onto a flat surface and then dried it in the sun. People of Ancient china wrote on Bamboo or silk prior to paper however, bamboo was considered too heavy and silk too expensive.

Ts’ai Lun’s invention quickly led to the expansion and reproduction of prayers written by hand in Buddhist monasteries and by 650 CE China create block printing and began printing prayers instead. People eventually started making not only paper but paper products as well. Kites, playing cards, and what we know of as paper money was made during the Song Dynasty (960 -1279 CE).

The invention of paper quickly spread to other nations like India, Eurasia, the Middle East, Korea, and Japan. In 700 CE the Abbasid Caliphate began using paper during the expansion of the Islamic Empire.

Codex: Earliest Form of a Book

Coptic Liturgical Codex 17th–18th century
Coptic Liturgical Codex 17th–18th century

Before a book was a book, it was called a codex. And before a codex people mostly relied on scrolls. Though very similar to a book, a codex used sheets of papyrus and did not use paper. The structure of a codex had two advantages. First, they provided a protective cover, and second, having separate pages gave the ability to browse in sequential order. Codexes were handwritten and often included artistic designs on both covers and pages. Artful illustrations were used to help tell stories and create aesthetics, almost as much as they do now.

Effects of Paper in the Middle East, 700-1300 CE

The usage of paper in the Middle East had significant effects on improving long-term literacy and economy between 700-1300 CE. This section of the article refers to research done by Maya Shatzmiller at the University of Western Ontario. During the Middle ages, keeping up with the demand for writing material became difficult. This made for the transition from papyrus to paper. In fact, there were monopolies in papyrus production which made writing material expensive. Abbasid Caliph’s administration was forced to buy paper from these monopolies.

Maya calculated that papyrus was expensive by comparing wages of unskilled and professional workers and looking at how they could afford papyrus. With the introduction of paper, those prices went down significantly. By Looking at databases of book prices and comparing them to the purchasing power of wages she was able to conclude the dramatic decline in prices between the 11-12th century and the 12-13th century. “The average cost of a book was 2,80 dinars in the 11th-century Egypt, 0.87 dinars in the 12th century, and 0.52 dinars in the 13th century ( as cited in Shatzmiller 2018, 13).” In the context of purchasing powers, this meant unskilled workers in the 11th century Egypt worked 41 days to buy a book, 14 days in the 12 century, and 8 days in the 13th century.

Therefore paper had a significant contribution to the economy compared to expensive papyrus at the time. And as an additional result, this increased literacy rates due to cheap commercialization.

Early European Paper Industry

Paper was brought into Europe during the 11th century. It was in Italy where most early paper manufactures were located. Paper was manufactured in the masses and distributed to the rest of Europe. Initially paper was not very popular in Europe due to the fact that the quality was considered inferior. It was also thought to have come from Muslim culture which may have been rejected by the Christians that dominated Europe. Most notably Holy Roman Emporer Frederick II ordered that paper was not to be used for public documents. Therefore paper did not become popular until the invention of the printing press and refinements were made to improve the quality.

European advancements included automatic hammers to make pulp, developing glue that did not attract insects, bleaching, and watermarking. Even with all these new refinements to papermaking techniques, it can be argued that paper never really took off to change the world like it did until the invention of the Printing Press. Until then, the world largely used woodblock presses and movable type as an early form of printing.

The Printing Press

Gutenberg Printing Press model
Gutenberg Printing Press model

the printing press was first invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1444 in Strasbourg, France. Johannes was an inventor, publisher, and goldsmith from Germany. Gutenberg’s printing press featured metal movable type in Gothic script which was then inked and pressed down on a sheet of paper. His first project was an edition of the 42 line bible, nicknamed ‘Gutenberg’s Bible’. It was first time a book had ever been mass-produced and sold out immediately. Currently, 48 copies remain today.

This invention led to a powerhouse of information in the 15th century when knowledge could be shared rapidly in a way that shook the world. It not only shared the information that impacts our ability to learn but carried different world-views as well. In the 15th century, this led to the spread of Christianity and Protestant religion, and Lutheranism which encouraged people to read and write. Many books were beginning to be translated and people could now read books in languages they understood.

Printing Evolutions 1843-Present day

With the successful development of paper, it was time for the printing press to take over and continue its legacy. There have been several notable achievements for the printing press, each time changing the way we look at printing information faster and cheaper.

Rotary Press

The Rotary Press was invented in 1843 by Richard Hoe and is nicknamed the ‘Hoe Press’ It was refined and finished in 1846 and was able to be patented by 1847. The press worked by having a cylinder with curved images and text pressed with paper fitted around the curve which meant it could be continuously fed. Keeping the cylinder free from any nicks and damage was of great importance to keep a quality standard. The end result led to prints being published far quicker than its predecessor the movable type press.

Offset Printing – 1875

Offset printing stormed the world in 1875, an invention by Robert Barclay who made the first offset lithographic printer. And this printer was reinvented again by Ira Washington in the United States in 1901. Originally using Barclay’s design, Offset Printing presses were made of tin while Washington improved the design by using rubber which produced designs that were much sharper and less prone to nicks and errors. Offset printing is used today and is largely unchanged. The process revolves around colors that are separated and passed through a series of cylinders and then passed through a rubber cylinder to create a final image. This method of printing is designed for large quantities of production and often becomes economical than other printers after 2000+ or so sheets.

Inkjet Printing – 1951

Inkjet printers are aptly named for their process of printing. Invented in 1977 in Japan by a Canon employee Ichiro Endo. Inkjet papers are dot-based printers that produce images using jets of ink that spray onto designated areas. These dots are small enough to be unnoticed by the human eye. Another dot-based printer, similar to the inkjet was the Dot Matrix printer however earlier models of the Dot Matrix were loud and could only print text. The pros of inkjet printers are that they are relatively low cost, quiet, and produce quality images. However, they are not built for high-volume printing, ink cartridges are expensive, and highlighter markers cannot be used over inkjet printing.

Ink cartridges for inkjet printers
Ink cartridges for inkjet printers

Laser Printing

What comes to mind when you think of laser printing may be the company Xerox. And that is perfectly normal, because Gary Starkweather an employee from the Xerox company was the one who invented laser printing in 1969. By refining a technique called Xerography. Xerography is a method of dry printing invented by physicist Chester Carlson in 1938. Laser printing works by passing a laser to a mirror with the text and/or image. The image is placed on a drum where it is negatively charged. It then comes into contact with powder toner that is positively charged. This is known as static electricity. Positively charged toner is attracted and gets stuck on the negatively charged image. It is then passed through two cylinders that melt and fuse the toner onto the paper.

Bonus: 3D Printing

While this type of printing technology may not include the paper industry, it is pertinent to appreciate that without paper this 3D printing may not have been invented at all. 3D Printing was invented by Chuck Hull in 1984 and involves a method called stereolithography. A process in which a light source is used to harden liquid resin into plastic. 3D printing has been used for many applications such as reducing manufacturing costs, prototyping, and construction, and it is even used in the jewelry industry.

3D Printing used in Orthopaedics
3D Printing used in Orthopaedics

Significance in Anthropology

Initially, I wrote this article to show gratitude and recognition to the inventors of paper and print production for the amazing work that they did. Without them, a lot of paper products we take for granted like newspapers, books, posters, packaging, etc., would have been a lot harder to come by. Even in the digital world, institutions such as hospitals, administration, post offices, schools, would suffer without printing efficiency. The printing press is herald as one of the most useful and invaluable inventions of our time. Part of us that makes us human is the language and knowledge we keep, but also our ability to communicate and learn complex ideas. The fact that paper has such a long history should tell us that our need to write and write on something is crucial to our self-expression.

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