Today, we fold paper. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I linger after my History of
Technology class to chat with a student, Michael Adcock.
Adcock has just handed in his term paper on a seemingly
marginal topic. He's written about origami -- the
so-called "Japanese" art of paper-folding. As he explains
origami to me, his fingers work on a small square of
I'd never seen myself as an origami folder, but as he
talks and as I skim-read his paper, my childhood (dare I
say) unfolds before me: the paper boats I sailed each
spring in rivulets of melting snow; folded-paper hats;
folded gliders that got me into trouble in my
grade-school classroom; the paper water-bombs we threw at
one another in the hot summer. Today, I still like to
fold paper swans with flapping wings.
As we talk, I remember how blank pages of paper lured me.
I was dyslexic. Paper was little use to me as material to
write upon. But paper, more than any other material, is
foldable. Adcock suddenly hands me the figure he's been
making. It's a clearly recognizable model of Alfred
Hitchcock. He picks up another piece of paper. His
fingers move again, and the conversation continues.
The Chinese invented paper in 105 AD. Paper spread to
Japan in 538. The Moslems took up paper-making in 704.
Paper-folding was soon being done in all three cultures.
The Japanese took origami the furthest. Their varieties
of folded images became markers of castes. But wherever
there was paper, people folded it.
An odd thing goes on today. There's more paper around us
than there ever was. But we see far less paper-folding.
The two-dimensional computer screen increasingly does our
3-dimensional thinking for us. And origami is rigorously
3-dimensional. It lures people who love to build in the
rich space of their own minds.
Jim Yao, of the Texas A&M Civil Engineering
Department, saw the trap perfectly clearly. He learned
origami as a child in Shanghai. He took it up again in
the 1960s. By the 1970s he was using it to lure exactly
the kind of students he knew engineering needed. He used
folded paper to demonstrate all kinds of structural
principles to students, hungry for the chance to see in
In fact, a lot of Euclidean geometry can be done in
folded paper. When the English first translated Euclid
into English in 1570, the book included many small
folded-paper explanations pasted into the text. Origami
was part of the story.
In the 1930's, Adcock explains, one great Japanese
origamist cataloged 50,000 of his folded shapes. Now
origami is on the internet, but there's a catch there. We
still don't have workable means for explaining folds on a
computer screen. That's still work for the human mind.
"Oh, here," says Adcock as I turn to leave. With a faint
smile, he hands me a complex joker's mask -- folded from
a single five-inch square of paper.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.