‘Le Papier, C’est la Vie’: Bicentennial of Robert’s Paper Machine, 1799
by Catherine Nash
“In 1798, Louis-Nicholas Robert (1761-1828), a young inspector at the Essones papermaking factory at the time, and something of a genius in the field of mechanics conceived the project and invented the first continuous paper machine - patent 18th of January, 1799. This invention responded to the need to produce more paper to accompany the soaring demand of printing.” -“Le papier, C’est la Vie”
“Le papier, c’est la vie” at the Palais de la Découverte in Paris, France, (February 9 - October 17, 1999) was an exhibition celebrating the bicentennial of the French invention that truly changed the world and the history of papermaking. I found the layout and content of the exhibition to be very thorough, fully describing the contemporary techniques of beating and sheetforming by machine. An extensive portion of the show was devoted to the multitudinous ways that society uses paper and most likely was very educational for the general public.
I was most fascinated by an antique replica of Robert’s original machine and include my sketch here. I would have liked to have had some more information about how the machine actually operated and the handwritten notes on my drawing are my own deductions. But upon coming home to Arizona, I have found not only the original technical drawings for the patent but also Louis-Nicholas Robert’s own words within a book by Bo Rudin entitled Making Paper: A Look into the History of an Ancient Craft:
“At the end of the cloth wire extending on the vat there is a flywheel or cylinder, fitted with little buckets which plunge into the paper stock, or liquid pulp. This cylinder,
by its rapid movement, raises the material and throws it into a shallow reservoir in the interior of the head, and from there the stock is poured, without interruption, onto
the endless wire cloth. As the material settles on the cloth it receives a side-to-side movement, causing the fibres to felt together. The water drains off the wire and back
into the vat. A crank turns the machine and causes the wire cloth to advance, the sheet of newly formed paper finally running under a felt-covered roller. When the paper
leaves the first felt roller it is no longer saturated with water, but can be removed from the machine, just as a sheet of handmade paper is taken from the felting after
pressing in a press.”
So much happened to the world of papermaking with this invention two hundred years ago, that it is important for us to consider the connotations on a global scale. A machine that replaced hand papermaking was inevitable: how it almost entirely eradicated a craft of over 1800 years, the unfortunate and tragic result. So much has and is being lost in every country worldwide: hand techniques refined by what only many hundreds of years and family heritage could develop. Since the devoted documentations of Dard Hunter in the first half of this century, contemporary historians, papermakers, paper artists and hand paper lovers have been able to save and document vital information and even revive a dying handicraft.