The Sting

In early 2000, I was flying from Albany to L.A. and thanks to a blizzard, I had missed my connection in Chicago. As a result, I had to go standby on the next flight out which, as you likely know, is one of the most unpleasant things you can do. I was literally the last one shoehorned into the Sardine Express and got the last remaining empty seat (a middle, of course). As I opened the overhead bin to stow my carry-on, I noticed that someone had put a large, origami swan right in the middle of the bin. (I swear I am not making this up.) “How rude,” I thought. “Taking up an entire bin on a fully packed flight with a damn paper swan.” As I raised my bag to stuff it into the bin, a rather large and imposing man — and I guess if you’re going to do this sort of thing you had better be physically large and imposing — stood up and offered to store my bag for me without disrupting his swan. Fine.

Origami, the Japanese art of paper-folding (it also has a long Chinese tradition), dates to sometime after the 6th century A.D. Initially a feature of only special celebrations — largely due to the high cost of paper — it didn’t become mainstream until somewhere around the 17th century. The earliest reference is a 1680 poem by Ihara Saikaku about origami butterflies.

Interestingly, insects and paper share a close relationship.

One of civilization’s oldest sciences is in fact entomology, the study of insects. That’s not surprising, really; pretty much no matter where you live, there are bugs. For much of history, it wasn’t so much a rigorously pursued science as simply observations used to aid things like agriculture, pest control, and beekeeping. Indeed, the earliest insects depicted by humans — rock paintings that date from 13,000 B.C. — are bees.

The first documented case of forensic entomology — the science of using insects in crime-solving — was recorded by Song Ci (1186–1249) in a “true crime” book published in China in 1235 called Xi Yuan Ji Lu (Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified or Washing Away of Wrongs — or, perhaps, CSI: Shanghai). In one case, a peasant was found murdered, stabbed with a sickle. But whose sickle? The investigators realized that blowflies are attracted to invisible remnants of blood and tissue — which led them to the culprit, who then broke down and confessed in one of those mea culpa moments we all know from episodes of Columbo.

Getting back to butterflies for a moment, one of the earliest butterfly experts was English entomologist Lady Eleanor Glanville [1654–1709]. She not only amassed a large collection of British butterflies, but also inherited a substantial fortune, which her husband and son were eager to get their hands on. After her death, her will, which bequeathed her fortune to individuals outside the family, was successfully contested, and it was her butterfly obsession that was cited as supposed evidence that she was not of sound mind.

Butterflies notwithstanding, one of the big problems impeding progress in entomology was actually a very small problem: most insects are really tiny, which makes it hard to get a good look at them. For most of us, that’s just as well, but for entomologists, that was a challenge. Enter the microscope, a physicist named Robert Hooke, and a 1665 bestseller called Micrographia. Hooke’s Micrographia was the first attempt to observe insects under a microscope and then draw them. It’s really an extraordinary book, and the illustrations are quite stunning. Hooke did have one problem, though: how do you get an ant to stand still long enough to draw it? He didn’t want to kill it as that would distort its shape, so what did he do? Exactly what I would do:

Having insnar’d several of these [ants] into a small Box, I made choice of the tallest grown among them, and separating it from the rest, I gave it a Gill of Brandy, or Spirit of Wine, which after a while e’en knock’d him down dead drunk, so that he became moveless methinks the ant wasn’t drinking alone — Ed., though at first putting in he struggled for a pretty while very much, till at last, certain bubbles issuing out of its mouth, it ceased to move (Hooke, 1665).

By the way, a “gill” of brandy is about a quarter of a pint! That ant is going to have a problem and start seeing bugs. But don’t call Insect PETA on Hooke: the ant eventually woke up and scuttled off, seemingly none the worse for wear, but probably looking for the medicine cabinet. Who says scientific progress is without sacrifice?

It was a prominent entomologist, by the way, who inadvertently helped solve a problem the printing industry was having.

After the invention of printing in the 1450s, and print volumes began going up, so, too, did demand for paper. Although early Asian papermaking used bamboo and other similar fibers, the fact is that you don’t find an awful lot of bamboo in Europe. So for the first few centuries of printing, paper was made from cotton and linen rags. It was an effective recycling stream: people wore out their clothes, gave it to the ragpickers, who then conveyed it to papermakers, and they produced paper. Yesterday’s soiled knickers became tomorrow’s newspapers. (Insert own joke here.) And paper wasn’t just used for printed materials; soldiers used to wrap powder and musket balls in paper, among other uses.

By the 1700s, there was a dire paper shortage. England even passed a law that stated that bodies could only be buried in wool or other animal fiber that was unsuitable for papermaking. Still, an alternate source of paper pulp was desperately needed.

Enter René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683–1757), a French scientist who, among many other things, invented the thermometer and temperature scale named for him (it was the first to use 0° as the freezing point of water). He studied all manner of creepy crawlies, and showed that the old wives’ tale about crustaceans regrowing lost limbs was in fact true. He also wrote about the possibility of using spiders to produce silk, which intrigued the emperor of China. In 1719, Réaumur was observing North American yellowjackets, a subspecies of what are known as paper wasps. In a treatise he presented to the French Royal Academy, he wrote:

“The American wasps form very fine paper, like ours; they extract the fibres of common wood of the countries where they live. They teach us that paper can be made from the fibres of plants without the use of rags and linen and seem to invite us to try whether we cannot make fine and good paper from the use of certain woods” (via Hunter, 1978).

Réaumur never followed through on his own advice (which, later in life, he regretted), and it took a while for this idea to percolate. One percolator was Jacob Christian Schäffer (1718–1790), a German botanist, mycologist (one who studies fungi), ornithologist, and entomologist. He also invented various prisms and lenses, and even a primitive washing machine. Between 1765 and 1771, Schäffer published a treatise with the catchy name Versuche und Muster, ohne alle Lumpen oder doch mit einem geringen Zusatze derselben, Papier zu machen, in which he described his experiments in papermaking using various kinds of plant matter.

You would have thought that, given the need for alternative fibers, the inventor of a wood-pulping machine would essentially be granted a license to print money. However, that turned out to not be the case.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, a British papermaker named Matthias Koops began experimenting with papermaking using such materials as straw, hay, and wood pulp. He was even granted two 1801 patents for pulping machinery, and launched the Straw Paper Manufacturing Company, a seminal industrial paper mill. Alas, Koops was still reeling from an earlier bankruptcy, and his various creditors — seeking to, ahem, re-Koop their investment — seized his equipment. The company was sold at action, and Koops and his patents disappeared without a trace, save for a book he wrote detailing his experiments. (Despite rumors, it was not printed on his own paper.)

Fast forward half a century or so to a disciple of Réaumur’s named Friedrich Gottlob Keller (1816–1895). As a youth, Keller read Réaumur’s account of wasps and papermaking, and, being an inveterate tinkerer, in 1841, at the age of 25, began to build a wood-pulping machine. He was unable to interest the German government in helping finance it, so he sold his invention to a papermaker named Heinrich Voelter for a pittance, and a patent was later issued jointly to both Keller and Voelter. Around 1848, Voelter began manufacturing Keller’s wood-pulping machine in quantity, but when the patent was up for renewal in 1852, Keller couldn’t afford his part of the renewal fee. The patent ended up solely in Voelter’s name, and he ended up making quite a bundle while Keller ended up penniless. Eventually, after wood pulp became the standard, European papermakers, recognizing the part Keller had played in the invention of wood pulping, took pity and financed his meager retirement.

Keller wasn’t the only acolyte of Réaumur that had a tough time of it. Keller was working on his wood-pulping machine virtually at the same time as Canadian inventor Charles Fenerty (1821–1892), who, by 1844, had perfected a wood-pulping system. Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Fenerty pitched his process to the Acadian Recorder, a top newspaper at the time, even writing them a letter on his home-made paper. Alas, they, too, were not interested. Dis­couraged, he never pursued the idea or patented it, and took up​ a variety of other professions, including poet.

Since wood pulp was inspired by wasps, perhaps there it’s fitting that many of the earliest inventors of wood-based papermaking ended up getting stung.


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