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The Fourdriniers’ paper machine

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Until the early 19th century paper manufacture was slow and labour-intensive and the product was limited in size. It is remarkable that few advances in such an important activity took place in the preceding eight centuries. Two hundred years ago, however, the Fourdrinier brothers completed development of their improved papermaking machine.

Papermaking had gained impetus in 1798 when Louis Robert, a clerk employed in the Essone paper mill in France, invented a machine that produced paper of continuous length, but the device was not a success.

In 1800 Leger Didot, the proprietor of the mill, proposed to his brother-in-law John Gamble that patents should be taken out in England. Gamble induced the brothers Henry and Sealy of the Fourdrinier stationery house to develop the machine, which they did at great expense and with the assistance of the engineer Bryan Donkin. A patent limitation deprived the Fourdriniers of any benefit from the invention and they were reduced to bankruptcy.  

Liquid pulp was pressed onto an endless moving wire gauze, then the web was transferred to a continuous felt blanket and pressed again. In principle it was the Robert machine, but already it was far in advance of it.  Wide sheets of any length could be produced without superintendence.

An improvement on this machine by John Dickinson used a cylinder covered in wire cloth revolving in a pulp suspension. The water was removed through the centre of the cylinder and the pulp lifted off the surface by a continuous felt passing round a roller. By the mid-19th century the pattern for the mechanised production of paper had been set. Subsequent developments concentrated on increasing the size and capacity of machines.

Although Caxton was the father of printing in Britain, the Fourdriniers developed a process by which the full benefits of printing could be realised to the world, and they contributed immeasurably to the dissemination of knowledge. The only comparable event in history is the advent of the internet.

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