In the post-apocalyptic world, it will be a safe bet to assume that most wireless networks — if not all — along with general handheld smartphones, and other platforms for instantaneous, effortless communication will be lost. At least for the foreseeable future.
For the survivors, the priority will be to seek a return to more traditional communication technologies, such as the humble pen and paper. And while there will be plentiful stocks of paper left behind by our civilization, paper itself is a particularly perishable material. It will be readily consumed by wildfires, floods, and general humidity in the deserted cities. Any civilization that wants to progress will need to find a way to make more of it.
Making Paper After the Apocalypse
The Chinese were the first to invent paper, about a thousand years before it first appeared in Europe. But the paper we take for granted today, made from tree pulp, is a technological advancement more recent than you might imagine.
As recently as the late nineteenth century, paper was mainly the product of recycled tattered linen fragments. Linen itself is a fabric made from the fibers of the flax plant, and in principle any fibrous plants can be used to make paper. Including even the humble nettle, rushes, hemp, and various types of coarse grass.
The fibers that make modern paper both light and strong are made of cellulose. Chemically, this long-chain compound is present in all types of plant, where it helps to bridge their cells together. If you have ever eaten celery before, cellulose is responsible for the ‘stands’ that often get stuck in the teeth.
Traditional ways to separate cellulose from plant fibres required a lot of physical labour — by crushing the stems, a process known as ‘retting’, and then soaking them in stagnant water for a few weeks. This soaking period was to allow microorganisms to get in and break down the plant materials, eventually decomposing the structure. After a suitable amount of decomposition, force is usually needed to beat the cellulose fibres out of the softened stalks.
Unfortunately, modern paper — made from wood, such as that from tree trunks — is made from a cellulose that is ‘locked’ into place by another plant chemical: lignin. We cannot even think of making modern paper without figuring out how to separate the two. But fortunately, there is a way to get around this physical labor requirement. As it turns out, both cellulose and lignin in trees are vulnerable to a chemical severing process known as hydrolysis.
Hydrolysis to make modern paper is a molecular operation that involves exposing wood to a vat of boiling alkaline solution for several hours. This alkali corrosive solution will begin to break down the chemical bonds holding the plants together.
And while the solution is damaging to both lignin and cellulose, by nature it will destroy the lignin first. Leaving you with a window to liberate and separate the precious paper-making cellulose fibers without damage. You can do this by chopping up wood into small pieces, and by exposing as much of the surface area as possible to the action of the solution. (Salvaging a wood chipper or even a food blender will make this process much easier.) When the chemical process is complete, short white fibers of cellulose will float to the top of a murky-brown broth of water, colored by the disintegrated lignin.
By now you may be thinking, how do I create this alkali solution? There are many ways to make alkali solutions. One of the easiest (and smelliest) ways is to ferment your own urine.
Humans, like all mammals, dispose of excess nitrogen as a water-soluble compound called urea in urine. Given time and the right conditions, bacteria will readily convert this urea into ammonia. If you have ever been to a neglected public toilet, the likelihood is you have smelled ammonia. This may not be the best type of hydrolysis available, but it is incredibly low tech and easy to do — and will serve its purpose until more advanced methods are available. Collect the white cellulose fibers in a sieve and rinse them until they run clear of the muddy lignin color. Trapped in the sieve will be a thick ‘soup’ of sloppy cellulose that you can then pour across a fine wire mesh or framed cloth screen. As the water eventually leaves the cellulose, the fibers should form a loose ‘mat’ that can be squeezed further — eventually into smooth flat sheets of paper. Then all you will have to do is let it dry completely. And voila! paper.
Making Ink After the Apocalypse
Once all the ink pens have wasted away or disappeared, you will need to reinvent ink to form the written word on your paper. In principle, ‘ink’ can be anything that leaves a stain. You could technically mash up some berries, preserve them in salt, and use that as a form of ink. The main issue is permanence (or, more accurately, impermanence).
The medieval Europeans invented iron gall ink, purpose built to resist fading in sunlight or washing off of the page. The courts still use iron gall ink today, with “registrar’s ink” being the method of choice for birth, death and marriage certificates.
‘Galls’ are small growths that are found on plant leaves. Mixed with an iron compound, the gallic and tannic acids contained in the galls undergo a chemical reaction to make an invisible ink that eventually dries into a deep, enduring black color.
A rudimentary pen can also be made to deliver this ink to the paper, which is by far the simplest reinvention: a quill. A duck or swan’s feather is preferred. All you need to do is clear out the material from the shaft, and then cut the base of the feather into the classic shape of a writing nib. The shape of which has a slight slit backwards that allows for a tiny reservoir of ink to sit on the tip of the quill, in-between replenishments via an inkwell.
The Post-Apocalyptic Printing Press
The movable-type printing press was invented in Germany in the fifteenth-century, the basic execution of which is a row of cuboidal blocks in a rectangular frame, and each with a letter embossed on the top face. The type is inked and then pressed on to a sheet of paper.
It may be painstaking to organize the blocks to make up a page of text, but after that making endless copies is a breeze. Once enough copies of that page have been replicated, the next job is to reorder the blocks to make another page. Rather painstaking, but even a rudimentary printing press is hundreds of times more efficient than a scribe.
The major challenges to reinventing a more efficient printing press include devising a suitable mechanism to ‘press’ the ink onto your paper; reinventing the typecast and, unfortunately, the reinvention of a new type of printing ink in of itself. Iron gall ink — while fine for everyday writing — is too runny for the printing press.
Printing Books Post-Collapse
To mass-produce printed books, you will first need to make the tools for mass-production in printing. A way to get there is to make identical letter typecasts out of molds of molten metal. The most efficient way to do this is to create typecasts with straight smooth sides, but also with perfect right-angled edges that slot perfectly alongside other blocks to form rows.
The crisp shape of any particular letter can be formed on the end face of the block by placing a swappable matrix at the bottom of the mold. Matrices like this can be made out of soft, malleable metals such as copper — and the exact indent of each letter or number can be hammered into each of them with a single (but very hard) steel punch. This way, you only have to make just the one engraving of each number, letter, and symbol on to different punches, in order to effortlessly churn out pieces of identical type.
After typesetting a page of text, the typeface is inked and transferred as a detailed impression on to a blank sheet. Forceful mechanical devices are needed to ‘press’ the typeface down, in fact they are still used today — hence the name ‘printing press’. A simple lever or pulley system should do the trick, but an ancient Roman technology is even better. The screw press, designed initially for juicing grapes and olives, applies an even pressure of two plates onto a blank sheet, squeezing the inked type compactly. Incidentally, if you haven’t got round to inventing paper yet, this should also work on parchment made from calfskin.
Making Ink for the Printing Presses
You won’t be able to use iron gall ink for the printing press. In order to prevent runoff, a viscous ink is required — one that will adhere to the metal features of the type, and then transfer cleanly to the paper without blurring or smearing.
Fortunately you can make a more permanent ink out of soot. The tiny particles of soot serve as a dark pigment when mixed with water and a thickener — such as lampblack mixed into either linseed or walnut oil. This mixture will dry well, and stick to the metal type much better than iron gall ink ever could. You can influence the thickness of this new printing ink with turpentine, and can vary the stickiness by moderating how much walnut and linseed is included in the recipe.
Keeping the Foundation of Civilization Alive
It won’t be easy, but it can be done with the right knowledge. With the information here, hopefully your feet will be pointed in the right direction. The first big step is making clean sheets of paper, and two types of ink, and some rudimentary technology to establish the neo-printing presses of old.
It may be painstaking at times, and terribly inefficient in comparison to the old, pre-apocalyptic ways, but it will be a start of the underpinnings of a new civilization with the accumulation of old knowledge. At the end of the world, keeping the written form alive will be the only way to claw back advanced technologies lost to time.
Of course, you have to be one of the survivors first…
This article was written by Neil Wright of McGowan Transcriptions.