Today, we watch books grow old. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I was recently studying some
hundred-year-old books in the University Library.
When I got up to leave, I glanced at my sleeve. It
looked like it'd been rubbed on rusty pipes. Every
time my arm had brushed the stack of books, some of
the old binding had flaked off on my shirt. It
turns out that that was just the tip of an iceberg.
Books made in the last 200 years are especially
cursed with short lifetimes. Their pages become
brittle and brown; their bindings crack; they
eventually fall apart.
Some of you may have had a chance to see a
500-year-old Gutenberg Bible -- one of the first
printed books. If you have, you were surely struck
by its fine condition -- its pliable, snowy-white
pages. The startling fact is that surviving
15th-century books are usually in better shape than
We see why when we look at ancient paper. Papyrus,
from which we take the word paper, was made from
reed fibers. It was a pretty good material, but
medieval scribes preferred to use parchment -- the
skin of calves or sheep. Parchment is by far the
most durable writing material that ever found
common use. An 800-year-old handwritten parchment
book often looks as good as new.
Linen-based paper was a poor man's substitute for
parchment. It's made by reducing linen rags to a
fiber slurry. When the slurry's drained over a fine
mesh, the fibers reform themselves into a sheet of
superb paper. Real linen paper is a lot cheaper
than parchment, but it's still very costly by
Gutenberg printed some Bibles on parchment, but
most were less expensive ones, printed on linen
paper. Yet even those paper Bibles were wonderful
books, and they've stood up remarkably well.
The demand for printed books skyrocketed after
Gutenberg. And the cost of paper had to be cut. In
the seventeenth century, alum was used to speed the
reduction of fibers to a pulp. But heat and
humidity cause alum to react into hydrochloric
acid. Then later paper-makers used sulfuric acid or
chlorine to bleach colored rags. And when people
turned to wood fibers in the early 19th century,
still other destructive acids were created as
Graduate students sometimes wonder why they're
asked to buy expensive rag paper for their theses.
Yet old theses are often among the best preserved
books in a library. Most library books are being
eaten away from within by all those acids.
It's all a big trade-off, of course. Our
civilization wouldn't be where it is if we hadn't
found ways to make cheap books available. But it's
really frightening to have to watch our cultural
heritage crumbling away under our fingers.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dean, J.F., The Self Destructing Book. Yearbook
of Science and the Future. Chicago:
Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1989, pp. 212-225.
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special
Collections, UH Library, for her counsel throughout
For more on Gutenberg, see Episodes 628, 753,
756, 894, and 992.
Typical 19th century paper pulping
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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