As I paged through the old book, a paper slid out and fell to the floor...
The book was a bound collection of magazine articles on the development of television and may have been from a personal library as there were several volumes from the late 1920s to the beginning of WWII. The text was underlined and the margins were full of notes, drawings, schematics, simple equations, and a few ripped pieces of paper as page markers. Hardly pristine, but much more interesting. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find any indication of who the author was.
The piece of paper was more interesting. A folded letter without envelope, it was in a different hand from the book's annotations and was signed V. Zworykin. The salutation didn't ring a bell, but maybe it was the book's owner. It was dated 1931 and mostly devoted to a hand-drawn schematic of what appeared to be the electronics to drive the coils of a cathode ray tube for a television camera. There was also an artifact that appeared to be a coffee stain.
So much and so little.
About that time Vladimir Zworykin, one of the two principal inventors of a practical television system, was doing fundamental work for David Sarnoff at RCA. There was a good deal of industrial intrigue as the other inventor - Philo Farnsworth - was on a better track, but ultimately was ripped off by Sarnoff - the techno robber baron of the day. It was a tiny window into a period of white hot technology development and competition from a period where standards and a winner had not yet emerged.
The book struck me as too expensive so I tucked the paper back into the book and returned it to its shelf. A month later I changed my mind and drove back to Princeton. The book was still there, but the paper was missing.
Paper is a remarkable technology. Writing on high quality low acid paper stored in a low humidity environment should last for thousands of years. There are thousands of varieties ranging from extremely inexpensive disposable paper to the finest stationery and photographic stock. When used with a pen or pencil the user experience can be a delight for both writer and reader. There is a certain magic in the lost note from the hand and age of someone who is no longer around and a handwritten letter from a friend can amplify its written message.
My sister is an artist with a taste for fine inks and fountain pens. I like pen and ink but she has been trying to get me to come over to a proper writing instrument. I'd do it but I have a poor hand posture that causes problems with the nib. I do appreciate good paper for letters, back of the envelop calculations and sketching. Nothing in the digital world comes close.
We tend to think of plants as machines for converting light from the Sun into energy locked in the chemical bonds of a sugar. In fact they go way beyond that making very specialized materials like the cellulose that are important structural elements that give them shape Cellulose is a polysaccharide - a long chain of linked sugars.1 Molecular chains attach to form thin microfibrils which, in turn, bundle to form thicker microfibrils that are a few microns long - end to end a few dozen would be about as long as the diameter of an average human hair. These, glued together with other engineered materials, are stitched together to give the plant its strength and shape. Fantastic self assembling nano-engineering.
The trick to making paper is to form a wet mass of cellulose and dry it to form a fiber mat. This isn't terribly difficult if you extract the cellulose from cotton, but wood is much less expensive so most of our paper starts out as a tree.
Wood is another remarkable substance - a composite material composed of cellulose fibers bound together by a glue called lignin. It can be rigid and stable for centuries. All we have to do to go from wood to paper is somehow disentangle the cellulose from the lignin - a process sometimes described as similar to getting chewing gum out of your hair.
There are variations but general recipe is to grind the wood into small bits and boil them with some chemicals to break the lignin bonds to free the cellulose fibers. Separate the cellulose and you get a pulp that can be poured onto a flat surface and allowed to dry. The result is paper and a few millennia of effort have given a large variety with very different characteristics. You can feel a bit of texture, but at human scale it seems very flat. Zoom in with a microscope and even at 100 times magnification its microstructure is apparent.
Much can be done engineering the tangled mess to create specific papers. Bleach it and add from chalk dust and you get a white paper. Coatings and process can control how deeply ink soaking into the paper - if at all. A good stationery paper allows the ink to soak in just enough to become part of the paper forming a bit of a composite material that is very robust over time. If the paper is too glossy the ink pools on the surface and smears, and if it is too absorbent the ink smears in the paper. The surface roughness is engineered to give a nice interface to a pen's nib or the tip of a pencil. People develop preferences that depend on the task.
Many papers have the ability to hold a crease - something lacking in most other materials. Cellulose fibers partly break at the crease - the fibers to either side are unaffected and the amount of breakage is determined by the paper type. Kids use of this without realizing the nanoscale realignments that are taking place under their finger tips. Most of us are happy idiot savants when paper airplanes are being made.
There is far too much detail to talk about - after all, this is the result of some very clever invention and craftsmanship over a few thousand years - but I'll end with two things.
The 'weight' of a paper bothered me for a long time. I usually buy a 20 pound weight, but a ream of 500 sheets weighs about five pounds on my scale. It turns out the 8.5 x 11 inch sheets are cut from a larger sheet and 500 sheets of that weighs 20 pounds. The ISO standard used in the rest of the world is more sensible - the weight of the paper in grams per square meter.
A friend realized his thesis - the work about about four years - was going to be uninteresting to almost everyone. He put a five dollar bill halfway through it and checked a year later to see if anyone had taken the bait. Nothing. After ten years he thought it would be right to sweeten the pot. For over a decade a crisp Ben Franklin has been waiting for someone along with a stamped addressed envelop and a request asking why the finder bothered to look... Write only memory...
Perhaps some day I'll end up with a fountain pen. For now the act of creating personal letters is important to me and lesser tools are just fine. I'm not terribly good at expressing myself in words, but personal letters are rare these days and the act of writing is special.
“GOOSE, n. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird's intellectual energies and emotional character, so that when inked and drawn mechanically across paper by a person called an "author," there results a very fair and accurate transcript of the fowl's thought and feeling. The difference in geese, as discovered by this ingenious method, is considerable: many are found to have only trivial and insignificant powers, but some are seen to be very great geese indeed.” - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
1 (C6H10O5)n, where n can ranges from a few hundred to several thousand. It stores energy - it burns well, but our bodies can't metabolize it.
I was in Mesa recently and visited the Cornish Pasty Company with my niece. They had several vegetarian and a few vegan pasties on the menu and my vegan 'southwestern' was delicious. I've never made them before, but a reasonable way to start experimenting is to use puff pastries and fill them with savory fillings. Traditionally these are meat and potatoes fare, but I'm having luck with mixtures of carrots, broccoli, corn, sweet potato some coconut milk and spices. Lots of ways to go. and the pre-made wrappers make them look professional. Sort of 400°F to get the Maillard reaction going and 20 to 30 minutes depending on how thick they are.