Today, the mummy's curse. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I like to obey two
principles in regard to fringe science -- like
dowsing, UFOs, and New Age medicine: First, never
take it at face value; and second, don't just
dismiss it. For it's based on something. Here's a
case in point: the matter of mummy paper.
Joseph Dane finds standard works on paper-making
which report that, when mid-19th-century
paper-makers didn't have enough rags, they resorted
to making paper from the linen wrappings of
What a great story! Only a grinch would want to
debunk it. Dane goes looking for origins. In the
late 12th century, before Europe had learned to
make paper, an Arab account told of Bedouins who
robbed graves to get linen for making both clothing
So there could be something to the story. The
ancient Egyptians certainly used a lot of linen to
wrap a mummy -- as much as a whole kilometer of the
stuff, by some accounts. Then, after 1800, two
things happened. First, scientists who'd been with
Napoleon on his Egypt campaign started a resurgence
of interest in Egyptology.
Meanwhile, the new 19th-century automatic presses
were using paper much faster than people wore out
clothes. At first, paper-makers stretched the
limited supply of old cloth by mixing straw and
grass in with rags. But that still wasn't enough,
and we had yet to invent wood pulp paper. In 1855
the London Times offered a one-thousand-pound prize
for a new paper-making material.
So people starting thinking about all those
Egyptian mummies. Wishful thinking fed the idea
that there were enough mummies to supply the demand
for rags. Articles started reporting that mummy
rags were showing up in America at three cents a
Dane follows the articles like stepping stones. One
tells of an edition of the Syracuse
Sentinel printed on mummy paper. Another
describes how hard it is to open the linen shell
around a mummy so it can be reduced to fiber.
Another scholarly article tells how the unwrapped
corpses were used to fuel the engines on an
Egyptian railway. Mark Twain picked up on that one.
He wrote about an Egyptian railroad engineer
shouting at his fireman, "Damn these plebeians,
they don't burn worth a cent -- pass out a King."
So the story snowballed until we finally got the
wood pulp process under control. Then the stories
faded. And yet one thing is sure: paper made from
fine linen is much better than paper made from wood
A few years back I visited a paper preservation lab
in Oregon. I found the director making paper out of
old fire hoses. Like mummy wrappings, fire hoses
were once woven from fine linen.
No historian has yet located an authentic piece of
mummy paper, but believe me: the day I go into the
business of writing horror novels, I plan to begin
by seriously trying to find some of the stuff.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds