The long paper

Nicolas Luis Robert: at 19 years of age he takes part in the American Revolutionary War. In 1798, at the Essonnes paper mill, he designs a machine that increases the production of paper: the first “paper machine” is born. Like most Inventors, he will end his days in poverty.

Nico Zardo

In 1790 Nicolas Louis Robert (1761-1828), after having been in the military for 14 years, became superintendent of the paper mill at Essonnes (60 kilometers south of Paris), a mill born in 1355 that produced paper for the French Ministry of Finance. Robert meets with great difficulties in controlling the excesses of the 300 workers (mauvais coucher!) whose lack of discipline is not foreign to the winds of revolution that are inflaming France and creating a problem when it came to meeting growing paper demands. Just like the first mechanical looms were reducing the presence of manpower in textile production, so Robert is spurred by the owner, Didot Saint-Legér, to design a machine that could speed up the production of paper, employ fewer workers and constitute a turning point in the traditional production methods immortalized in the famous tables of Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.


THE FIRST ATTEMPTS ARE RATHER DISAPPOINTING. But Didot insists and, by making men and means available (all in the utmost secrecy and without the workers knowing it!) allows Robert to set up some prototypes of the machine that reproduces the human manufacturing procedure. Through a hopper that could regulate its flow, the pulp was poured onto a metal mesh conveyor belt that allowed it to drip-dry. Its subsequent passage between two cylinders covered in felt further reduced water content and gave the paper – which was wound at one extremity of the system – the proper thickness. Albeit rustic and not very stable, the paper machine was born! It was 60 centimeters wide but theoretically, as long as desired!
The system’s patent was filed on January 18, 1799, but its poor efficiency demotivates Robert who abandons his research and transfers, in exchange for a promissory note that will never be honored, the patent to Didot. He, in turn, passes the idea on to his brother-in-law, John Gamble, who requests collaboration from Englishmen Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, two Huguenots of French origin whose name will inevitably remain tied to the “paper machine”. Thanks to the assistance of an able mechanic, Bryan Donkin, and to an investment of 60,000 pounds, the Fourdrinier brothers perfect the machine and make it efficient. It will start running in Apsley, Hertfordshire, in 1803 and will be patented on July 24, 1806.
Nicolas Louis Robert will end his career as a teacher and will die in poverty at 66 years of age.



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