Year of Invention: A.D. 105
What Is It? A smooth, flexible surface made from cellulose (plant-based) fiber
used to write and draw on.
Who Invented It? Ts’ai Lun (in China)
How many pieces of paper do you touch, read, or look at in a day? How many paper bags, paper plates, paper napkins, paper towels, pieces of toilet paper, cardboard containers, or corrugated containers do you use? Cheap, plentiful paper made writing and art practical and possible as part of daily life.
The availability of paper made written language possible. Paper has shaped and molded the way we communicate and the way we organize our societies. Paper has defined the way we store, safeguard, and share our history and information. Amazingly, 19 of the other 99 of these 100 greatest science inventions directly depend on paper, and 48 of them indirectly depend on paper.
People wrote on clay tablets and on dried sheepskins long before paper existed. But these were not available to ordinary people, and writing was the privilege of official scholars. By 3000 B.C., Egyptians were making writing scrolls from the peeled and pressed fibers of papyrus plants. By this same time, the Chinese were making a writing material called tapa from the peeled, dried, and pounded inner bark of mulberry, fig, or daphne (a kind of laurel) trees. Both the Chinese and the Egyptian writing surfaces were reasonably smooth, flexible, strong, and durable. However, like sheepskin parchment and vellum, they were available only in a limited supply and were too expensive for common use.
Ts’ai Lun was a councilor in the royal court of Chinese emperor Ho Ti during the Han Dynasty. He was also a scientist. In the year A.D. 104 the emperor dumped a problem into Ts’ai Lun’s lap. Tapa making was a slow, labor intensive process. Bark supplies were limited. The emperor ordered Ts’ai Lun to create better, more plentiful paper.