Today, we watch books grow old. 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.
One day, after I'd been studying
some hundred-year-old books in the University Library, I
glanced at my sleeve. It looked like it'd been rubbed on
rusty pipes. Every time my arm had brushed the stack of
books, some of the old binding had flaked off on my
It turns out that that was just the tip of an iceberg.
Books made in the last two hundred years are especially
cursed with short lifetimes. Their pages become brittle
and brown; their bindings crack; they eventually fall
Some of you may have had a chance to see a
five-century-old Gutenberg Bible -- one of the first
printed books. If you have, you were surely struck by the
fine condition of its pliable, snowy-white pages. It is a
startling fact that surviving fifteenth-century books are
usually in better shape than the ones your
We see why when we look at ancient paper. Papyrus, from
which we take the word paper, was a wonderful
material, made from reed fibers. But it wasn't available
in northern Europe. Medieval scribes had to use parchment
-- the skin of calves or sheep. Parchment was a very
durable writing material. An old handwritten parchment
book often looks as good as new.
But it took the far cheaper linen-based paper to supply
the voracious new printing presses. Gutenberg printed
some of his Bibles on parchment, but most were less
expensive ones, printed on linen paper.
That paper is made by reducing linen rags to a fiber
slurry. When the slurry is drained over a fine mesh, the
fibers reform themselves into a sheet of superb paper.
While real linen paper is a lot cheaper than parchment,
it's still very costly by today's standards. And those
paper Bibles were wonderful books, and they've stood up
The demand for printed books skyrocketed after Gutenberg.
And the cost of paper had to be cut. In the seventeenth
century, alum was used to speed the reduction of fibers
to a pulp. But heat and humidity cause alum to react into
hydrochloric acid. Then later paper-makers used sulfuric
acid or chlorine to bleach colored rags.
And when people turned to wood fibers in the early 19th
century, still more vicious chemicals had to be added to
digest the fibers. The first widely-used wood-based
papers have fared very badly. Lay a piece of that paper
over your palm and close your fist. You'll find yourself
with a handful of paper chips.
Graduate students sometimes wonder why they're asked to
buy expensive rag paper for their theses. Yet old theses
are often among the best preserved books in a library.
Library books from a century ago are almost all being
eaten away from within by acids and other chemicals.
It's all a big trade-off, of course. Our civilization
wouldn't be where it is if we hadn't found ways to make
cheap books available. But it's really frightening to
have to watch our heritage crumbling away under our
fingers. I really hesitated to brush off my sleeve that
day as I left the library.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Dean, J.F., The Self Destructing Book. Yearbook of
Science and the Future. Chicago: Encyclopaedia
Britannica Inc., 1989, pp. 212-225.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 216.
For more on Gutenberg, see Episodes 628, 753,
756, 894, and 992.
Typical 19th century paper pulping process
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2001 by John H. Lienhard.