Charles Fenerty (January, 1821 – 10 June 1892), is a Canadian inventor who invented the wood pulp process for papermaking, which was first adapted into the production of newsprint. Fenerty was also a poet (writing over 32 known poems). He also did extensive travelling throughout Australia between the years 1858 to 1865 (living in the heart of the Australian gold rushes).
History of paper (before 1844)
Before wood pulp, paper was made from rags. Papermaking began in Egypt (see Papyrus) c.3000 B.C. In 105 AD, Ts’ai Lun a Chinese inventor, invented modern papermaking using rags, cotton, and other plant fibers by pulping it. Then in the 18th century a French scientist by the name of René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur suggested that paper could be made from trees. Though he never experimented himself, his theory caught the interest of others, namely Matthias Koops. In 1800 Koops published a book on papermaking made from straw. Its outer covers were made from trees. His method wasn’t like Fenerty’s (pulping wood); instead he simply ground the wood and adhered it together. His book does not mention anything to do with wood pulping.
Friedrich Gottlob Keller
Coincidentally, in around 1838 a German weaver by the name of Friedrich Gottlob Keller read Réaumur’s report and got curious. Unaware of Fenerty across the ocean, he experimented for a few years and, in 1845, filed for a patent in Germany for the ground wood pulp process for making modern paper. This was the beginning of a very large industry that exists to this day. In that same year Henry Voelter bought the patent for about five hundred dollars and started making paper. Keller did not have the funds to do it. At one point he did not have sufficient money to renew his patent. Keller died poor, but well remembered in Germany as being the first to discover the process.
As a youth, Charles worked for his father in the family he worked in a farm.(something Charles did not like it). It would then be transported from neighboring lakes to Springfield Lake (where their lumber mill was located). The lumber would then be hauled into the mill and cut up. The Fenerty’s would ship their lumber to the Halifax dockyards, where it was exported or used for local use (since Halifax was going through a “building boom” at the time). He had two brothers (he was the youngest boy), both of whom helped with the operations. Charles was also a farmer. The Fenerty’s had around 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) of farm land. They would ship most of their produce to the markets in Halifax. It was in his youth where he was inspired by both nature and poetry. His first (known) poem was titled *The Prince’s Lodge (later retitled as “Passing Away” and published in 1888). He was 17-years-old when he wrote it. It was about the decaying home (overlooking the Bedford Basin near Halifax) that was built decades prior by Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn. The lodge was in poor condition, and was not occupied as Prince Edward return to England in August 1800. He would have had passed this home every time he hauled his lumber and produce to Halifax. But he would pass the local paper mills too.
In those days paper was made from pulped rags. It was a technique used for nearly 2000 years. And suddenly demands reached their peak, while rag supplies reached its all time low. Charles was very curious of how paper was made, and often stopped at these paper mills. There were many similarities between paper mills and lumber mills; something young Fenerty saw and experimented with. Demand for paper was so high that eventually Europe starting cutting down their shipments of cotton to North America. After seeing how paper is made and comparing it to the saw mills, it is not difficult to imagine how Fenerty got the idea (since the process is very much the same: fibres are extracted from the cotton and used to make paper). And Charles knew very well that trees have fibres too (from his relationship with the naturalist Titus Smith. At the age of 17 (in c.1838) he began his experiments of making paper from wood. But 1844 he had perfected the process (including bleaching the pulp to a white colour). In a letter written by a family member circa 1915 it is mentioned that Charles Fenerty had shown a crude sample of his paper to a friend named Charles Hamilton in 1840 (a relative of his future wife).
Charles Fenerty began experimenting with wood pulp around 1838. And in 1844 he made his discovery. On October 26, 1844 Charles Fenerty took a sample of his paper to Halifax’s top newspaper, the Acadian Recorder, where he had written a letter on his newly invented paper saying:
Messrs. English & Blackadar,
Enclosed is a small piece of PAPER, the result of an experiment I have made, in order to ascertain if that useful article might not be manufactured from WOOD. The result has proved that opinion to be correct, for- by the sample which I have sent you, Gentlemen- you will perceive the feasibility of it. The enclosed, which is as firm in its texture as white, and to all appearance as durable as the common wrapping paper made from hemp, cotton, or the ordinary materials of manufacture is ACTUALLY COMPOSED OF SPRUCE WOOD, reduced to a pulp, and subjected to the same treatment as paper is in course of being made, only with this exception, VIZ: my insufficient means of giving it the required pressure. I entertain an opinion that our common forest trees, either hard or soft wood, but more especially the fir, spruce, or poplar, on account of the fibrous quality of their wood, might easily be reduced by a chafing machine, and manufactured into paper of the finest kind. This opinion, Sirs, I think the experiment will justify, and leaving it to be prosecuted further by the scientific, or the curious.
I remain, Gentlemen, your obdt. servant,
The Acadian Recorder
Death and legacy
Little attention was given and even Fenerty himself never pursued the idea and he never took out a patent on his process. But it did mark the beginning to a new industry, although today most people attribute F. G. Keller as the original inventor.
Fenerty travelled to Australia then returned again to Halifax in 1865. He held several positions: Wood Measurer, Census Taker, Health Warden, Tax Collector for his community, and Overseer of the Poor. He was also very involved with the Church. Fenerty died on June 10, 1892 in his home in Upper Sackville, Nova Scotia, from a flu.
Fenerty was also a well-known poet of his time, publishing more than 35 (known) poems. Some popular titles were: “Betula Nigra” (about a Black Birch tree), “Essay on Progress” (published in 1866), and “The Prince’s Lodge” (about Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, written around 1838 and published in 1888). In October 1854, he won first prize for “Betula Nigra” at the Nova Scotia Industrial Exhibition.
Pulped wood paper slowly began to be adopted by paper mills throughout Canada, the U.S., and Europe. Then to the rest of the world. Charles would live to see the very first wood pulp paper mill erected near his home town (where some claim he worked part-time in his latter years). German newspapers were the first to adopt the process, then other newspaper made the painful switch from rags to wood pulp. By the end of the 19th century almost all newspapers in the western world were using pulp wood newsprint.