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Paging Through History

Mark Kurlansky

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For every new technology, there are detractors, those who see the new invention as destroying all the good in the world. This happened when the written word started to replace the oral word, when paper began replacing parchment, when printing took work away from scribes, and again in modern times as computers replaced handwritten.

In all these cases, the arguments against the new tech were similar - we would lose some of our mental powers and human contact wd be diminished.

But the critics are misunderstanding how it all works. It's not that new tech changes society. New tech only succeeds when society has already changed to make room for it. Printing did not create the Protestant Reformation; the ideas and the will to spread them is what opened up demand for printing presses.

The inventors are often not the ones who get the credit. Gutenberg did not invent the printing press, Robert Fulton did not invent the steamboat, Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb. Rather, these were men who took something which wasn't meeting society's needs, and reworked them until they did. We rem the person who made something commercially viable.

Eumenes, ruler of the Greek city of Pergamum, wanted his own library, but Egyptians refused to sell him papyrus. So they learned to soak animal hide in lime for ten days, rhen scrape it and dry it. After drying, they were further smoothed by rubbing with a stone. The best material was from skin of unborn animals. Called pergamom, after the city, but in English, parchment.

Don't know exactly how Chinese invented paper. It is like nothing that came before. Paper is made of cellulose fibers that are broken down and mixed with water until they are so diluted that they are barely visible. The liquid is then scooped on to a screen, rocked back and forth to eliminate lumps, and allowed to drain, leaving a thin layer of randomly woven fibers behind.

In second century Chinese came up with a faster way. Useda two-piece bamboo screen that could be dipped in a vat, then as soon as pulp covered it evenly, (just a matter of minutes) could be pulled off and a new one made.

By the third century, paper was being sized (chemically treated) to prevent it from absorbing too much ink.

Burial practices used a lot of paper. Chinese were traditionally buried with valuables as offerings to the spirits, but that just led to grave robbing. So they came up with the idea of paper representations of valuables.

Muslims were thought to have learned how to distill alcohol in C8. Traditionally Islam is opposed to alcohol, but since it didn't exist when Quran written, that prob refersto wine and beer.

In C10, Persian rulers commissioned poet Ferdowski to write a history of Persia. Paid him one gold coin per line, so he wrote Shahnameh with 50,000 of them. Sultan also had to pay scribes by the line, and he insisted that the book used expensive Chinese paper, since that was the best available. In 1970 a 1530 copy of Shahnameh was broken up and sold a page at a time. In 2006 one of these single pages sold for $1.7 million at Sotherby's.

Euro printing had advantage of rigth alphabet - 26 fairly simple characters. A complete set of type, with upper and lower case letters, numbers, and various punctuation and signs, came to about 100 pieces of type. The Chinese had to operate with about 60,000.

1740 innovation 'wove paper' using a screen made of close knit very fine brass wire.

The Bay Psalm Book is remembered as "the first book printed in America" bc no copies survive of two earlier books. In 2013, Sotherby's sold a copy for $14 million.

1652 Boston mint started producing coins for local market. Minting coins was a royal prerogative and so illegal. But from 1642 to 1660 there was no monarchy in Britain - the Puritans having overthrown them - so coins minted in that period were legit. So right up until 1582, the Boston coins were all minted with 1652 date.

Many C17 American books do not lie flat bc the paper wasn't dried properly. But bc they used rag paper, they are still in good condition today.

But as newspapers became popular, mills ran short of rags to make paper. So they turned to wood pulp. Used choppers to fragment, then acids to break down the cellulose. Problem was that the paper started out white (after bleaching) but soon turned brown. A 150 yo book printed on wood pulp paper is not as good as a 500 yo book printed on rag paper. It was not until 1970 that the counter-intuitive process of using alkalines instead of acids produced durable books.

The idea of paper clothes resurfaces periodically. The Scott Paper Co ran a promo in 1966, offering a shapeless paper shift for $1. Women loved them, and Scott sold half a million in eight months. Other companies got in on the act, and you cd buy jumpsuits, aprons, vests, or even an evening gown for $5. The fad died out by the end of the 60's, but you can still buy paper wedding dresses - a dress which, after all, is only meant to be worn once.

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