Friday, 18 July 2014

A History of Paper Making and Printing

Inspired by Claire's very fine study of Gutenberg and His Printing Press, we followed suit to find out more for ourselves about this remarkable invention that improved literacy in the Western world.

We started by reading Gutenberg's story from the following books:

Some books only have a paragraph or so about the inventor and his invention.  We found the following to be particularly informative:

The two videos recommended in Claire's post are also very useful.  The first gives a short overview of Gutenberg and his printing press:

We particularly enjoyed watching Stephen Fry's investigation into the history of Gutenberg's motivation to invent the printing press:

Being part of a huge homeschooling community has its advantages.  There's always someone else who's interested in a similar topic at the same time as we are.  When an opportunity to participate in a 'history of printing and paper making' workshop at the world's oldest mechanised paper mill came up, we were only too happy to go along!

We were greeted with a short yet detailed presentation of the history of paper making and printing in Britain, and of the mill.

We then went on a guided tour of the mill.  The first machine we saw was the a paper making machine that is still actively in use to make paper.

This machine uses all kinds of recycled paper and even elephant poo as source materials!  The machine was using elephant poo on the day of our visit, but it was certainly busily working away.

We also saw the Fourdrinier paper making machine, which was installed at the mill in 1902.  It's a huge machine.  We were told that when any of the drums needed cleaning, a worker would have to "dive" into the hole (see photo below) to get inside each drum.  Either people were much smaller back then, or they must've used children (child labour was very common in Victorian Britain) because the hole is very small.

The Fourdrinier machine wasn't working when we visited but it is still in working condition, as shown below:

The foundations of the paper mill date back to the Anglo-Saxon period, and a previous mill in the same location has been recorded in the Doomsday Book.  We were able to see the Anglo-Saxon remains of the mill, which is the water wheel part that used to provide power to the mill before steam power was discovered.

Another part of the mill is dedicated to paper recycling, which feeds the pulp as source material for paper making.

The pulper wasn't working when we visited but, like the Fourdrinier machine, the Watford Pulper is still being used on other days.

We were also given detailed explanation of original printing presses that were installed at the beginning of the 1900s,

as well as the development of different type cases.

After the guided tour, we were given a detailed demonstration and talk on more about history of printing, engraving, paper making by a man who had worked in the mill since 1966, so he knew everything about every machine that was used in the mill and every step that took place in the printing process there.  We learnt much from his intimate knowledge of the mill and its processes.

Another part of the workshop has to do with paper making.  Tiger has made his own paper before, but that hasn't stopped him from enjoying the process again, after a demonstration by the workshop leader.

Tiger and I knew that the Chinese had invented paper making and printing a thousdand years before these methods reached Europe, so it was interesting for us to see this fact acknowledged in the exhibition gallery.

It was fascinating to read that T'sai Lun, who invented papermaking in 105 A.D., was inspired by how wasps make their nests, so we looked up the history of how papermaking was invented in ancient China:

Along with papermaking, printing technique was also invented ancient China, the basic method being individually engraved characters lined up to be printed on papers.  The same principle is used by the Western letter printing method.

This post is linked up to:
  1. Science Sunday: How to Make a Candy Spine
  2. Hip Homeschool Hop - 7/15/14
  3. History and Geography Meme #126
  4. Weekly Wrap-up: the one where we talk curriculum and the first day of school 
  5. The Homeschool Mother's Journal (7/19/14)


  1. That was a fantastic field trip to be able to take - at just the right time. It's so much fun when things come together that way.

    1. Indeed! We are very lucky to have many homeschooling groups around, and mothers who are very active in planning field trips. The trips and our learning aren't always in perfect timing, but it's heaven when they are! :-)

  2. That looks like a fascinating workshop, especially given your prior knowledge of paper-making and its history. I bet the kids all loved the bit of elephant poo trivia. I know mine would! :-D

    1. Yes, the elephant poo bit was the most exciting thing for the children, it seems. :-) They were all slightly disappointed that they didn't see elephant poo being used on that day. I was too, to be honest. :-)

  3. Hwee,

    What an interesting post this is!

    It is very sad to think of all those child workers of the past. So glad our children get to enjoy a proper childhood. Maybe the printing press in its smaller way, changed the world just like the Internet. I bought a book full of paper making recipes years ago but we never used it. Perhaps I ought to hunt it out and show it to the girls. It would be sad if it ended up on our throw away pile. Thank you for your comment on my getting rid of stuff post!

    1. We've made paper several times in the past, using the simplest formula. I bet you'll get many interesting types of paper if you were to use the book's recipes. I'll bet your girls will enjoy the process of making beautiful handmade papers followed by compiling them into journals. I know I would! :-)

  4. When we went to Williamsburg they talked about making paper AND how they make ink. They said they attempted to convince the Wiliamsburg board to let them make paper and ink in the traditional manner, but the board wouldn't let them. Something about sanitary conditions, and not wanting the smell.

    1. That's a shame! It would have been very authentic for everyone to actually see how paper and ink were made, in the traditional way. Unless there is a real cause of concern, such as certain ingredient being poisonous (such as lead or cadmium in ink making), the authorities shouldn't be so uptight about things.

    2. I think the main cause of concern was the late 1700s paper making and ink making involved using urine and large amounts of beer...... They decided not to be THAT authentic.

    3. I see. Well, that is understandable then. :-)


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