Before embarking on a relentless circumnavigation of the globe about fifteen hundred years ago, the technique for making paper was a carefully guarded proprietary craft, its application so varied and so practical that the Chinese esteem it today as one of their four outstanding inventions of antiquity. In his Novum Organum Scientiarum ("The New Instrument of Science"), Sir Francis Bacon proposed that the three other technological milestones from that elite group--gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass--had "changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world" to the degree that "no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries." While Sir Frances did not include paper in his short list of world-altering inventions, he did anoint it a "singular instance of art," another way of saying, essentially, that it was unique.
Bacon had no inkling, however, about how paper had first come into being, where it had originated, or how it had made its way from one country to another over the previous millennium; "merely be chance" is the neat phrase he used for the genesis of "all the most noble discoveries." What Bacon also failed to note--perhaps because it was as obvious in the seventeenth century as it is today--is that without paper, there would have been no printing, one of the many instances in which scholars have lumped the pair together as allied technical advancements, with paper usually getting the shorter shrift of the two, especially in the impact they have had on the diffusion of culture.
--Nicholas A. Basbanes
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