Today, wasps try to teach us to make paper. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
With the 1700s came huge
increases in the use of paper -- newspapers,
broadsides, the first magazines, gift wrapping.
Soldiers used paper to wrap black powder and lead
The trouble is, all that paper was made from cotton
and linen rags. When the Continental Army ran the
English out of Philadelphia, they reentered the
town short on paper for their ammo. Then they found
2500 copies of a sermon on Defensive War in Ben
Franklin's print shop and put them to use in their
Historian Dard Hunter tells how housewives all over
Europe and America came under intense pressure to
save and recycle every scrap of old clothing. We
read in the 1769 Boston News Letter,
Rags are as beauties which concealed lie,
But when in paper, how it charms the eye!
The Chinese, who invented paper 1900 years ago,
experimented with every kind of plant fiber. They
settled on bamboo and mulberry fibers -- both hard
to come by in the West.
You can't make paper from animal fibers, like wool.
So the English passed a law that burial garments
had to be woolen. That freed 125 tons of rags per
year for English papermaking. But it was a drop in
the bucket. We needed a replacement paper fiber.
The French scientist, René Réaumur,
came up with the solution in 1719. Look at North
American wasps, he said -- what you and I call
paper wasps. They make fine paper for their nests
by chewing up wood and exuding it. And if they can
do that, why can't we?
Réaumur didn't actually make paper. But the
idea stayed alive until a German clergyman, Jacob
Schaffer, got his hands on it. Between 1765 and
1771 he wrote a huge treatise on making paper from
alternate fibers. He included actual paper samples
that he'd made from wasp nests and directly from
But rag-based paper was too good to give up without
a fight. Papermakers limped along. First they added
straw, then grass, to their rag slurries. They
tried to repair the color and quality by adding
chemicals. Paper began a long, slow decline.
Not until the 1850s did papermakers break down and
begin using wood pulp. The first paper they made
with wood was simply awful. The chemical processes
of wood pulp papermaking remained crude until the
late 1800s. Since then, wood pulp paper has varied
from wretched to pretty good. We still struggle to
do what wasps had been doing, long before us.
Meanwhile, most 19th-century books are being eaten
away by the chemicals in their paper, while
abandoned wasp nests -- well -- they seem to last
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hunter, D., Papermaking: The History and
Technique of an Ancient Craft. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1943, Chapter XI.
Singer, C., Holmyard, E.J., Hall, A.R., Williams,
T.I., A History of Technology, Vol. V,
The Late Nineteenth Century, c. 1850 - c.
1900. London: Oxford University Press, 1958,
I'm grateful to Jack Thompson, Thompson
Conservation Laboratory, Portland, Oregon, for
pointing out and providing the Hunter source and
for showing me excellent examples of wasp paper.
For more on early paper, see Episodes 894, 1051, and 1227.
For full size images of the
pictures, click on the thumbnails
Title page and frontispiece of a typical cheap 1885
edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. This is a
typical example of early wood pulp paper. Today it
is so fragile that it practically collapses under
its own weight.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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