…and the world’s first paper-making machine
The original concept of a continuous paper-making machine was the invention of a Frenchman, Nicholas Louis Robert. He worked at a paper mill near
Paris and whilst there, developed his ideas for making a continuous sheet of paper by mechanical means. A French patent was registered by Robert in 1799 but he subsequently sold the patent and a model of his machine to his employer, Leger Didot.
Didot did not find conditions in revolutionary France suitable for the development of the patent and he turned to England for help. He was related by marriage to an Englishman, John Gamble, who was at that time in Paris acting for the British government in prisoner of war exchanges. Gamble returned to England, registered the patent in London and was later joined by Didot with Robert’s model machine.
In London they obtained the financial support of Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, brothers who were wholesale stationers of some substance. The Fourdriniers commissioned Bryan Donkin to develop Robert’s model and the world’s very first continuous paper-making machine was installed at Frogmore Mill in 1803. A second, much improved and larger machine was also installed at Frogmore the following year followed by a further machine at Two Waters Mill, a few hundred yards upstream.
The cost of developing these machines and especially the many improvements that were made in subsequent years proved to be an enormous financial strain and, despite sales of machines to other papermakers, the Fourdrinier brothers were unfortunately declared bankrupt in 1810. It was estimated that by then the Fourdriniers had spent over £60,000 on developing the continuous paper-making machine. Bryan Donkin continued to make machines which were sold subject to royalties payable to the Fourdriniers, but sadly it seems they received little of these.
Nevertheless the technical developments in these early years proved to be a success and the continuous paper-making machine quickly spread throughout Britain and subsequently the world. A Parliamentary Select committee in 1837 acknowledged the importance of the Fourdriniers’ contribution to the paper industry and at least their name lives on in that the vast majority of the paper machines now in use throughout the world are still known as ‘Fourdrinier’ machines.