Art. LIX.—The Age of Pulp: a Speculation on the Future of the Wood-fibre Industry.
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 4th August, 1890.]
Many ages have passed over the world, each of them preparing the way for that which was to follow, and all in their turn contributing to make it what it is. Poets have sung the glories of the Golden Age, the history of the Stone and Bronze Ages has been brought to light by the labours of the traveller and the archæologist, and our own experience and observation have made us familiar with the marvels of the Age of Iron and Steel. But another age has already dawned upon us, which for want of a better name, I will call “the Age of Pulp;” and I hope that I shall be able to show that it bids fair ere long to eclipse all the ages that have gone before it.
It is difficult to supply a definition of the term I have employed which will be at once concise and descriptive. For the purpose of this paper I will define pulp as “a metamorphic compound formed by the concretion of particles of disintegrated matter.” In this sense concrete is pulp, felt is pulp, and paper is pulp; for in each of these substances all trace of the original form—the grain of the stone, the staple of the wool and the disposition of the fibre of the vegetable matter—is absent in the new compound, has been lost in the process of manufacture.
From this it will appear that the term may be very extensively applied, and far more so now than in any other period of the world's history; in fact, almost every product of the age is more or less characterized by the pulp idea. Our literature, art, fashions in dress, are all pulp. The wisdom of the ancients, the traditions of mediæval times, classical and foreign art-forms, Greek, Roman, Gothic, and Oriental elements, are all represented in the modern compounds. Even in language, the old grammars and foreign modes of speech are pounded down, torn up, and mixed together to form material for the verbal amalgam in which we express our thoughts. And, to go even further, what are the nations and races of the present day but pulp? By colonization, by international intercourse, the same process of disintegration and concretion is taking place in an ever-increasing ratio. In fact, in all departments of life, in every plane of action—in physical, mental, and moral; in political, social, and artistic—the great pulp-manufacture is going on as it never went on before.
I think I have said enough to justify the title at the head
of this paper—namely, to demonstrate that the period we live in may be fitly designated as, par excellence, “the Age of Pulp.” I do not propose, however, at present to attempt a speculation on pulp in the abstract: I shall merely confine myself to an account of a single department of the subject, which is nevertheless a very large and important one—namely, that which relates to the manufacture and uses of pulp made from vegetable fibre.
Although the fibre-pulp industry is, comparatively speaking, still in its infancy, the principle involved in it is by no means a new one. As in the case of many other industries, it existed in an embryonic form long before its enormous capabilities were appreciated. The pulp idea was present when the first sheet of rag-paper was rudely made by hand many hundred years ago; it only required time and experience for it to reach its present development. The early stages were fitful and tentative. The now universal millboard was followed by various trivial attempts in papier-maché, but the first genuine step forward was taken when the pulp in a compressed and moulded form was used in the manufacture of articles hitherto laboriously made by hand. It had taken a long time to blow the spark into flame, but once the flame was properly kindled it spread with wildfire rapidity, and, as improved machinery multiplied the number of substances available, and enlarged the field of operations, it soon appeared that there was practically no limit to the variety of uses to which the pulp might be put.
A few instances, taken almost at random from current accounts of some of the more recent applications of the process, will serve to show that no speculation is too wild as to the ultimate destiny of this most plastic of materials. Doors and window-frames, and even entire houses, have been made of it, as well as articles of furniture, vessels of every description, musical instruments, and even stoves and cooking-utensils. It has been used in America for the floor of a skating-rink, for which it has answered better than either timber or asphalte. It has supplied the material for bottles in Austria and Germany, and for boats in France. In Russia it has been successfully employed in the manufacture of tramway-rails; and in Hudson, New York, is shown one of a set of wheels which travelled 300,000 miles under a Pullman car. From these few instances, which might be multiplied ad infinitum, it will readily appear that there is scarcely a substance for which the pulp is not an efficient substitute, scarcely a department of manufacture in which it cannot be used with economy and advantage.
I cannot pretend to give a detailed technical account of the process of manufacture, but I may state briefly that the
raw material required includes all substances containing vegetable fibre. Straw and grasses, old ropes and sacking, moss, and even peat, find their way into the pulping-machine, as well as every kind of wood. These, having been crushed and torn until the fibre is thoroughly separated, and all foreign and useless matter eliminated by washing, &c., are compressed in moulds into the form required. By regulating the amount of pressure, as well as by the choice of materials, any desired degree of density may be obtained, and by an admixture of certain chemicals the substance may be rendered proof against damp and fire, as well as against the ravages of insects.
But, although the field of operations of the pulp-mill, already so large, is constantly extending, there is one department to which, so far as I have been able to learn, it has not reached as yet—at least, beyond the most elementary stages. I allude to the department of shipbuilding, for which a little consideration will show us, I think, that the material is most specially suited. The old “wooden walls” have had their day—and a glorious day it was: the ships of iron and steel are now having theirs; and, if I might be considered overbold in hazarding the opinion that this day is fast drawing to a close, it must at least be admitted that, when weighed in the balances of utility and economy, these marvels of creative and constructive skill are in many most important conditions found grievously wanting. A modern ocean liner is indeed a splendid object, but, in spite of the many advantages of perfection of model, structural strength, speed, comfort, and convenience, by which she excels all the types of vessel that have preceded her, she is still far from realising the perfection of the ideal-Ship. Indeed, the very qualities which enable her to surmount one class of the dangers of ocean travelling render her all the more vulnerable to another. If her huge bulk and high rate of speed cause her to make little of seas and storms, every increase of volume and power only serves to reduce her ability to withstand a shock; and experience has shown that in the case of a collision, or sudden impact on a hidden rock, all her modern improvements of watertight bulkheads and cellular bottom are too frequently powerless to prevent her cracking up like an egg-shell and going down like a stone.
Contrast a vessel of this class with one built either wholly or in part of the substance under consideration. The bulk, speed, perfection of model, and structural strength will still remain as constant quantities; but, in addition, instead of a thin, brittle plate, liable to corrosion, difficult of repair, and needing constant attention, you have a tough and elastic sheeting, strong enough to resist a considerable shock in the case of a collision, and of sufficient buoyancy, in the case of total
wreck, to help to keep the crew and passengers afloat—every fragment, in fact, being a raft in itself. There can be no doubt as to the result of the comparison. The fitness of the material for boats and small steam-launches has already been demonstrated by actual experiment. It only needs an extension of the principle involved in the construction of these to arrive at the ship of the future, the ideal ship of the Pulp Age.
There is one circumstance which must not be lost sight of, which will, more than anything else, contribute to the development of the pulp industry—namely, the question of timber-supply, which is daily becoming one of increasing importance. The timber-supply of the world, is by no means inexhaustible. A great part of the Old World has for many years been dependent on the forests of the New; but as the New World fills up by colonisation and settlement it will have enough to do to provide for its own home-consumption. In Canada and in the Western States of America the inroads already made by the farmer and the lumberman are such that in a comparatively short time the “forest primeval” “will, with the exception of a few inaccessible patches, be a thing of the past. Conservation and replanting on any efficient scale are out of the question; such things are not generally thought of until it is too late. John Bull and Brother Jonathan and their colonial cousins are wont to take the goods the gods provide, without troubling themselves about the wants of posterity. And sooner or later we shall be brought face to face with the question, as to how we shall find flooring for our houses and decking for our ships, not to mention material for our tables and chairs. The solution, I do not hesitate to predict, will be found in the pulp-mill. Under the present system of woodwork the available material is confined to portions of trees of a certain size, and of approved durability; while, for the manufacture of pulp, trees of small or imperfect growth, tops, brushwood, and timber-refuse of all kinds can be turned to advantage. The waste in a timber-bush is something appalling. The actual logs form but a very small fraction of the total growth, quantities of potentially useful stuff are crushed by the falling trees, or used up for skids, &c., and the bulk is left standing, to be swept off by fire during the first dry season. All this lamentable waste would be obviated under the pulp system, the portion of forest attacked would be moved off like afield of corn, and every fragment turned to account. Indeed, if the system were generally adopted it would probably be unnecessary to trench on the larger forests at all. In this country, at least, the supply would be kept up for many years from the logs which cumber the clearings of the bush-farmer, and other waste stuff which at present only serves to take up room and propagate destructive fires throughout the country.