THE ACCIDENT THAT GAVE US WOODPULP PAPER
From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART II
HOW A MIGHTY MODERN INDUSTRY OWED ITS BEGINNING TO GOTTFRIED KELLER AND
BY PARKE F. HANLEY
On the day when President Wilson was inaugurated to his second term,
this country had its fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of
wood-pulp. Were it not for a series of lucky chances that developed into
opportunity, this wood-pulp anniversary might have remained for our
Have you ever given thought to the accidentalism of many great
discoveries? The element of haphazard is generally combined with a
series of coincidences. Looking back over the developments that led to
gigantic contributions to our civilization, one cannot fail to be struck
by the coordination of events. Apparently there always has been a
conspiracy of natural forces to compel men of thought and
resourcefulness to add another asset to progress.
Your earliest school readers have been full of these--for instance, Watt
and his steam-kettle, Franklin and his kite. Now the youngsters are
reading that the Wrights derived a fundamental principle of
aviation--the warping-tip--from the flight of crows. With the awe comes
a disquieting thought. How far back should we be were it not for these
Among all the great things that have been given to the world in the last
three-quarters of a century, few measure beside the wood-pulp industry.
With its related trades and sciences, it is comprised within the ten
great activities of mankind. In manufacture and distribution, it employs
an army matching in size the Russian battle hordes. Its figures of
investment and production are comparable to the debts of the great war.
Yet it remained for a wasp and Gottfried Keller to bring us out of the
era of rag paper. Together, they saved us from a retardation of
universal thought. Therefore, let us consider the agents.
First, the wasp. She was one of a family of several hundreds, born in
the Hartz Mountains in the year 1839. When death claimed most of her
relatives at the end of the season allotted as the life of a wasp, this
survivor, a queen wasp, became the foundress of a family of her own.
She built her nest of selected wood-fibers, softened them to a pulp with
her saliva, and kneaded them into cells for her larvŠ. Her family came
forth in due course, and their young wings bore them out into the world.
The nest, having served its purpose, was abandoned to the sun and the
Maeterlinck, who attributes emotions to plants and souls to bees, might
wrap a drama of destiny about this insect. She would command a leading
place in a cast which included the butterfly that gave silk to the
world, the mosquito that helped to prove the germ theory of disease, and
the caterpillar that loosed the apple which revealed the law of
gravitation to Sir Isaac Newton.
As to Keller, he was a simple German, by trade a paper-maker and by
avocation a scientist of sorts. One day in 1840--and this marks the
beginning of the accidents--returning home from his mill, he trod upon
the abandoned nest. Had not the tiny dwelling been deserted, he probably
would have cherished nothing but bitter reflections about the
irascibility of wasps. As it was, he stooped to see the ruin he had
The crushed nest lay soft in his hand, soft and pliable, and yet tough
in texture. It was as soft as his own rag-made paper. It was not paper,
and yet it was very much like paper. Crumbling It in his fingers, he
decided that its material was wood-pulp.
Keller was puzzled to know how so minute a creature had welded wood into
a paperlike nest. His state of mind passed to interest, thence to
speculation, and finally to investigation. He carried his problem and
its possibilities to his friend, Heinrich Voelter, a master mechanic.
Together they began experiments. They decided to emulate the wasp. They
would have to granulate the wood as she had done. The insect had
apparently used spruce; they used spruce under an ordinary grindstone.
Hot water served as a substitute for the wasp's salivary juices.
Their first attempts gave them a pulp astonishingly similar to that
resulting from the choicest rags. They carried the pulp through to
manufacture, with a small proportion of rags added--and they had paper.
It was good paper, paper that had strength. They found that it possessed
an unlooked-for advantage in its quick absorption of printing-ink.
Have you followed the chain of accidents, coincidences, and fortunate
circumstances? Suppose the wasp had not left her nest in Keller's path.
What if he had been in haste, or had been driven off by the queen's
yellow-jacketed soldiers? What if he had no curiosity, if he had not
been a paper-maker, if he had not enjoyed acquaintance with Voelter?
Wood-pulp might never have been found.
Leaving Gottfried Keller and Voelter in their hour of success, we find,
sixteen years afterward, two other Germans, Albrecht and Rudolf
Pagenstecher, brothers, in the export trade in New York. They were
pioneering in another field. They were shipping petroleum to Europe for
those rising young business men, John D. and William Rockefeller. They
were seeking commodities for import when their cousin, Alberto
Pagenstecher, arrived from the fatherland with an interesting bit of
"A few weeks ago, in a paper-mill in the Hartz, I found them using a new
process," he said. "They are making paper out of wood. It serves.
Germany is printing its newspapers on wood-pulp paper."
To his cousins it seemed preposterous that wood could be so converted,
but Alberto was convincing. He showed them Voelter's patent grants and
pictures of the grinders. The Pagenstechers went to Germany, and when
they returned they brought two of the grinders--crude affairs devised
for the simple purpose of pressing wood upon a stone. They also brought
with them several German mechanics.
A printer in New York, named Strang, had already secured the United
States rights of the new process. He was engaged in the manufacture of
calendered paper, and, therefore, had no occasion to use wood-pulp; so
he was willing to surrender the patents in exchange for a small
The Pagenstechers wanted water-power for their grinders, and they
located their first mill beside Stockbridge Bowl, in Curtisville, now
Interlaken, Massachusetts. On an outlay of eleven thousand dollars their
mill was built and their machinery installed. Two or three trials, with
cotton waste added to the ground wood, gave them their paper. Their
first product was completed on the 5th of March, 1867.
It was a matter of greater difficulty to dispose of the stock. The trade
fought against the innovation. Finally Wellington Smith, of the near-by
town of Lee, Massachusetts, was persuaded to try it. Rag-paper had been
selling at twenty-four cents a pound. Smith's mill still exhibits the
first invoice with the Pagenstechers, which shows the purchase of
wood-paper at eleven cents.
The paper was hauled to Lee in the dead of night, for Smith's
subordinates wished to spare him from the laughter of his fellow
millmen. It was sold, and proved successful, and the Pagenstechers were
rushed with orders. They built a second mill in Luzeme, New York, but
abandoned it soon afterward for the greater water-power to be obtained
at Palmer's Falls, where now stands the second largest mill in the
Manufacturers tumbled over themselves to get the benefit of the new
process. The originators in this country held the patent rights until
1884, letting them out on royalties until that time. With each new plant
the price of paper fell, until at one period it sold at one and a half
cents a pound.
Trial had proved that spruce was the only suitable wood for the pulp.
Until 1891 rags were combined in about one-quarter proportion. Then it
was found that other coniferous woods might be used to replace the rags,
after being submitted to what is called the sulfite process. In this
treatment small cubes of wood, placed in a vat, have their resinous
properties extracted, and the wood is disintegrated. A combination of
ground and sulfite wood makes the paper now used for news-print.
As has been told, the primary advantage of the wood-pulp paper was its
immediate absorption of ink. This made possible much greater speed in
printing, and led in turn to the development of the great modern
newspaper and magazine presses, fed by huge rolls of paper, which they
print on both sides simultaneously. These wonderful machines have now
reached the double-octuple stage--monsters capable of turning out no
less than five thousand eight-page newspapers in a single minute, or
three hundred thousand in an hour.
With the evolution from the flat-bed to the web or rotary presses there
came further development in typesetting-machines--the linotype, the
monotype, and others. With paper and presses brought to such
simplification, newspapers have sprouted in every town, almost every
village, and the total number of American periodicals is counted by tens
of thousands. There are magazines that have a circulation of more than a
million copies weekly. The leading daily newspapers in New York print
anywhere from one hundred thousand copies to four times as many, and
they can put extra editions on the streets at fifteen-minute intervals.
The aggregate circulation of daily newspapers in the United States is
close to forty million copies. Weekly newspapers and periodicals reach
fifty millions, and monthly publications mount almost to one hundred
millions; and all this would be impossible without wood-pulp paper.
The annual production of wood-pulp in the United States and Canada is
estimated by Albrecht Pagenstecher, the survivor of the innovators, to
be worth nearly five hundred millions of dollars. Take into
consideration the hundreds of thousands employed in the mills, the men
who cut and bring in the raw product, the countless number in the
printing, publishing, and distributing trades. Then hark back to the
accident that put the wasp's nest under the toe of Gottfried Keller!
* * * * *
One zinc-etching illustration reproducing an old wood-cut of the ship,
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