For the second time in 200 years, paper costs are triggering a publishing revolution

We often think that the invention of the printing press ushered in the age of mass communications, but for more than 300 years after Gutenberg's achievement, most publications were out of the reach of the average European citizen. The problem was the high cost of paper, which, until the end of the 18th century, was made by hand from the pulp of linen rags.

In the 1790s a clerk named Nicholas-Louis Robert recognized that there was a future in cheaper paper. Robert had left his post in a Paris publishing house to learn the art of papermaking at the great paper center of Essonnes, France. But he found paper-mill employees so difficult to work with that he became determined to invent a machine that could make paper without them. Backed by a paper-mill magnate, Robert came up with a prototype machine. Although it could produce just a single sheet of paper at a time, it briefly made Robert the toast of Paris.

It was left to an English engineer named Bryan Donkin, who was employed by two London papermakers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, to develop Robert's idea into the first practical papermaking machine. An improved version of the Fourdriniers' patented design ultimately took off throughout Europe, Russia, and America. Soon the 19th century was being called the Age of Paper.

Today's modern mills use the same technology that Robert invented and the Fourdriniers brought up to speed. In modern mills a wood-based pulp, drawn out of a vat at the "wet" end of the machine, is applied in a thin layer to a continuous wire-mesh belt that runs the length of the device. The pulp dries and is pressed by a roller as the mesh belt slowly carries it to the dry end of the machine, where the paper is collected. A modern machine produces miles of paper a day.

But if cheap paper ushered in a new age, expensive paper may now be ushering it out. Over the past 18 months, the price of paper has doubled -- with no end to rising prices in sight -- because of environmental, labor, and other pressures on the papermaking industry. And just as new papermaking technology revolutionized publishing, CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web promise to replace much of paper-based publishing.

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Charles Brewer (edfreel1@incmag.com) is the research editor of Inc. Technology.