Today, paper makes a long journey. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A word to consider next time
you open a new ream of shiny white paper is the
Arabic word rizmah. It means a bale or a
bundle. The Spanish made rizmah into resma,
and the French made reyme of it. It finally
became the English word ream -- a bundle of
twenty quires (or 500 sheets) of paper. That
word-trail matches the trail of paper almost
perfectly as it moved from the east to the west.
The Chinese invented paper
in 49 BC. They began using it as a writing material
in AD 105. By the seventh century, the use of paper
had spread east to Japan and west to Samarkand.
That was just after Islam had begun spreading
outward from the mid-East. Paper and Islam
converged when Arab forces reached Samarkand, where
paper had been in use for just two generations.
Under Arab rule, Samarkand became a paper-making
All paper is
made of plant fibers of one sort or another, and
Samarkand paper was made of mulberry fiber. Two
recollections linger with me after my visit to
Samarkand years ago. They are the beautiful mosques
and air heavy with the smell of mulberry.
The Arabs also made paper centers of Baghdad and
Damascus. The intellectual center of the world had,
for a long time, been the city of Alexandria at the
mouth of the papyrus-rich Nile Delta.
Pergamon, in western
Turkey, had become a parchment-based intellectual
center, and parchment would become Europe's writing
material. But, in the 8th century, intellectual
ascendancy passed to Baghdad, and it came to rest
on the new writing medium of paper.
Historian Jonathan Bloom drives home the importance
of that fact. Before we had cheap and abundant
paper, arithmetic involved erasing and shifting
numbers -- operations that could be done on slate,
but not paper. In AD 952, Arab mathematician
al-Uqlidisi used Indian algorithms to create neat
once-through methods that could be done on paper.
Paper drove the creation of our methods for doing
multiplication and long division.
The use of paper slowly crept westward. Cairo was
making paper by the 10th century, Tunisia and
Islamic Spain by the 11th. Paper didn't cross the
Pyrenees into Europe. Rather, it entered by way of
Islamic Sicily. It was being made in Italy by 1268.
Both Hebrew and Islamic scripture had first been
put on parchment. Both religions were reluctant to
put scripture on anything so modest as paper,
despite its strength and durability. The flow of
paper into Europe was also slowed by Christians,
who called it an infidel technology. Central Europe
didn't take up paper until the 14th century, and
England only at the end of the 15th.
Not until 1578 did paper reach Russia after its
long looping trip from China, through Samarkand,
into the Holy Land, across North Africa, up into
Europe and finally to Moscow. But the great nexus
in this glacial migration of paper was Samarkand --
ancient, sunlit, and sweetly perfumed with the
delicate smell of mulberry.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bloom, J. M., Revolution by the Ream: A History of
Paper. Aramco World, May/June 1999, pp. 26-39.
(See also a more recent book-length account: Bloom,
J. M., The History and Impact of Paper in the
Islamic Lands New Haven: Yale University Press,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.