April 20

John Gamble an English paper mill proprietor, obtained on this day in 1801 a patent for a machine “for making paper, in single sheets, without seams or joinings, from one to twelve feet and upwards in length.” Thus, with patent No. 2487, the printing industry marched into the industrial revolution.

While paper had first been used in Europe since the 10th century, it was not until late in the 13th century that paper was first manufactured on the continent. Until Gutenberg developed movable type, there had really been no great demand on papermakers to venture beyond the hand methods of production. The printing press, however, soon increased paper usage to a degree which made it increasingly difficult for paper manufacturers to keep pace. The shortage was not alone in the number of vats in which to form the paper, but in the materials which went into its manufacture. The supply of rags, both linen and cotton, was insufficient for the demand. The use of other fibers became imperative if the presses were to be kept busy.

John Gamble owed his patent orginally to being the brother-in-law of François Didot, a French papermaker and member of the distinguished family of printers. An employee of Didot named Nicholas-Louis Robert—an overseer of the personnel in the paper mill at Essones—had become so discouraged with the bickering and lack of discipline among the workers in the mill that he determined to develop a method by which paper could be manufactured without the dependence upon the papermaker’s guilds. He built a model of a machine to manufacture paper, but it was a failure. He would have dropped the matter there and then but for the enthusiasm of Didot who prevailed upon Robert to continue with his experiments, with the result that a second machine was successful.

At the urging of St. Leger Didot, the inventor applied in 1798 for a patent, which was granted with great enthusiasm early in 1799. In the interim Robert was so excited about the possibilities of renown which his invention would bring him that he quarrelled with his sponsors. The economic disturbances of the Revolution contributed to a delay in the manufacturing of the machine, during which time Robert sold his patent to Didot, the payment to be made in installments. When Didot reneged on these payments, the inventor bought back his patent in 1801. It was at this juncture that Didot wrote to Gamble to enquire whether sufficient capital could be raised in England for the building of the first large machine.

Gamble in turn secured the financial aid of two London stationers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier. A machine was constructed by a mechanic named Bryan Donkin, using the plans prepared by Robert. The first machine was built at the Frogmore mill, Two Waters, Hertfordshire, at a cost to the Fourdrinier brothers of £60,000 For this considerable sum, the Fourdriniers received relatively little financial return, but the papermaking machine has since borne their name. A flaw in the original patent was responsible for the outcome of their investment, the result being that a number of manufacturers became involved in constructing machines without having to pay royalties. None of the pioneers in the development of this vitally important machine received just compensation for their efforts, but their contributions to the welfare of future generations may not be underestimated.

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