Charles Herty and the Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory
Dedicated September 26, 2001, at the Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory (now the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center) in Savannah, Georgia.
When Georgia chemist Charles Holmes Herty found a way to make quality paper from pine trees in 1932, he also founded an industry that brought much-needed jobs to the depression-crippled South. Herty wrote a new chapter in the ancient craft inspired by insects who built paper nests while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. At its root, however, the papermaking process remained the same: the bonding of cellulose, a polymer whose long chains support plant cell walls.
Less than a year after Charles Herty opened his research lab, a Georgia weekly called the Soperton News printed its March 31, 1933, edition on experimental paper made from southern pine trees. Seven months later, nine other newspapers followed suit.
Herty had championed, cajoled, and shepherded a watershed event in the centuries-old history of papermaking. Visionary and entrepreneur, twice president of the American Chemical Society, he expounded an idea which was revolutionary in that time: Southern pines could be grown as crops and made into excellent white paper.
For decades the prevailing wisdom held that southern pines were too gummy to be used for anything but cardboard and other brown paper. The forest and white paper industries had been built around the less sappy—and quickly dwindling—hardwoods of the northern United States and Canada. In the precarious economic climate of the 1930s, the paper industry had little incentive to venture elsewhere.
For Herty, the incentive was the Great Depression. His native South had been hard-hit by the stock market crash, bank closings, and other financial catastrophes. Many of his fellow Southerners knew little but farming and lived hand-to-mouth even in the best of times. The region’s abundant pines would provide an economic boost. "In order to give our people a living and get them out of one-room shacks, it may be desirable in the next 15 years to eat into our forest capital," he told the Savannah Morning News.
Herty had saved these forests in 1903 by inventing a new method of extracting resin, used to make turpentine, that did not scar and damage the trees. Now, he turned to chemistry to address another concern: the high level of resin in the pines’ wood, which was believed to block the bleaching with acidic sulfite solutions needed to make white paper.
During a lecture in Germany 30 years earlier, Herty had heard that the sulfite process could be applied to the Tannenbaum the Germans used as Christmas trees. Herty reasoned that, like these trees, younger pines in the southern United States would be less gummy than mature ones. Moreover, the pines’ fast growth rate would make it possible to cultivate the trees, creating a renewable resource.
At age 65, when most of his contemporaries were retiring, Herty was ready to test his ideas and launch a new industry.
Herty built his research facility and pilot plant with funds provided by a Savannah businessman, the state of Georgia, and the Chemical Foundation, a nonprofit organization established after World War I. He directed his new lab to make pine into the pulp that would become paper, using acidic sulfite solutions to digest the wood, remove impurities and increase the effectiveness of bleaching agents.
The newsprint that became the history-making edition of the Soperton News was a product of Herty’s ability to inspire: his staff, who split into two 12-hour shifts and worked seven days a week to make enough pulp for the test; the newspaper publishers, who bought into his dream at $40 per ton knowing their established northern suppliers charged $32 per ton; and the businessmen who provided cold storage and refrigerated train cars to transport the pulp to a Canadian mill, whose owners produced the finished paper at no cost to Herty. Thus began a new era in papermaking. Fifteen pulp and paper mills were built in the southern United States between 1935 and 1940, simultaneously breathing life into the South’s devastated economy and slowing the destruction of the North’s hardwood forests.
Earth’s first papermakers
True paper requires a chemical interaction between its fibers. By that standard, insects such as paper wasps, which make tidy umbrella-like nests, and baldfaced hornets, which make football-sized ones, take the honors as earth’s first papermakers. These insects chew wood and plant fibers into a pulp. Proteins in their saliva become the glue that links the cellulose strands together, fashioning a highly moldable matrix that is light, stiff yet resilient when it dries. While the dates of their origin are in question, we do know that waspish insects found trapped in amber date back at least 110 million years.
Mankind’s first papermaking
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans first mimicked such techniques around 3,000 B.C. They stripped off the outer bark of papyrus — from which we derive the word "paper" — and beat the marsh plant’s soft pith to break up the fibers. Squeezing and drying took several more days. The result was a tough, durable writing surface, as expensive to buy as it was labor-intensive to make. But this process did not create the chemical bonds that the wasp had achieved.
The invention of modern paper
The creation of actual paper is fixed some three millennia later, around A.D. 105. The historical record describes a courtier named Ts’ai-Lun who practiced papermaking techniques in the Hunan province of China. His recipes remained closely guarded secrets for at least a few hundred years, but the ingredients likely included cotton rags as well as mulberry and hemp. That innovation qualifies Ts’ai-Lun’s material as the first modern paper.
The secret escapes east to west
The secret reached Korea, then Japan in A.D. 610, and followed silk and trade routes west. The Arabs likely acquired the technique in the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan around A.D. 750 — as the story goes, they captured Chinese papermakers in battle and extracted a demonstration. Because Arab regions lacked good supplies of wood or other fibrous plants, their cultures developed paper made almost entirely from textile scraps. Although these papermakers did not beat the cloth very finely by today’s standards, they achieved a smooth writing surface by coating both sides with starch paste. The first paper seen in Europe was of Arabian manufacture. Before then, Europeans used parchment and vellum made from the skins of sheep and other animals.
Starting in the 1200s, Italians began to advance the development of paper. Craftsmen, primarily in the regions of Fabriano and Amalfi, furthered the Arabian rag technique: applying a stamping mill, using advances in wire production to make drain screens of mesh, building a paper press. Eventually paper eclipsed parchment and vellum, advancing literacy by making the written word lest costly and more accessible. By the mid-1400s, we began to see movable type, the printing press, and machine-produced books including the famous Gutenberg Bible in 1455.
Making paper from wood
The papermakers’ demand for cotton rags outpaced the supply by the early 1700s. That was when RÉnÉ de RÉaumur, a French chemist and naturalist, is said to have reasoned that if wasps could make paper from wood, so could people. His and others’ research contributed to pulping techniques that redirected the paper industry by the mid-19th century. Within 80 years, Charles Herty had applied the process to southern pines.
Fine-tuning the modern papermaking process requires chemical additives.
Pulping: Chemicals soften and separate fibers more gently than prolonged beating, dissolving the lignin that binds wood fibers together. Today, the Kraft process—developed by German chemist Carl F. Dahl in 1879 and named after the German word for "strong"—is one of the most common forms of chemical pulping. The wood is chipped into two-centimeter pieces, which are "cooked" in a solution of sodium sulfide and caustic soda.
Sizing: Softening the cellulose fibers makes them more absorptive, which facilitates the chemical bonding that takes place during papermaking. But this softening also makes the finished product too absorptive, which feathers ink and soaks up stains. That is why sizing is added either during the pulping process or after the fibers are laid on a screen. Some variety of starch is common, developed first by early papermakers in the east. Size coats the fibers and can help protect paper from oxidation, or breakdown, over time. Sizing can even add back some internal adhesiveness that other additives can inhibit. Coating finished paper with a mixture of starch and clay, then polishing it to line up the particles, gives us glossy magazines and book covers.
Fillers: Finely ground calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, and other chalky compounds are often added to the vat to make paper more dense and opaque. Fillers also include the colored rags, dyes, or pigments that produce paper in a rainbow of hues.
Whiteners: Titanium oxide, a chemical found in everything from paint to sunscreen, can be blended into the spaces between fibers. The purpose is to make the paper a brighter white. Whiteners are different from bleaching agents, which are introduced during pulping but are washed away before the fibers are screened and dried.
Finishing: The watery pulp is sprayed onto a flat wire screen which moves through the papermaking machine, draining the water and bonding the fibers. Next, the web of paper is pressed between cylinders, squeezing out additional water and creating a smooth surface. Then the paper is dried by heated cylinders and may be coated before removal from the paper machine. The finished paper may be supplied in rolls or polished or embossed and cut into sheets.
Today, new types of laser and digital photo paper meet the demands of the information age. But, at its root, the fundamental process of papermaking is still the same: the bonding of cellulose, a polymer whose long chains support plant cell walls.
Born in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended, Charles Holmes Herty was the son of a Confederate army captain turned pharmacist in what was then the capital of Georgia: Milledgeville. Both father and mother died by 1878, leaving 11-year-old Charles and his younger sister, Florence, in the care of their aunt, a schoolteacher.
Herty attended the Georgia Military Academy and graduated from the University of Georgia in 1886 with first honors in chemistry. He received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1890. While at Hopkins, Herty sang in the university’s glee club and played the flute — but above all he played sports, particularly baseball, a lifelong passion.
Herty’s teaching career began at his college alma mater in 1891. He also headed the school’s fledgling athletics program, coached the football team, and helped establish the sport’s tradition in the South, introducing his team to the modern elongated football.
He longed to study chemistry in Germany — then the world’s center of chemical research and achievement. In 1899, he took a year-long sabbatical in Berlin with his wife and two young sons. While there, he heard a comment that the technique then used to collect resin, a starting material for turpentine, was killing off America’s southern pine forests. Once back in Georgia, Herty developed and patented a new technique that collected the resin without scarring the trees and leaving them vulnerable to disease and weather. Promoting its use became his first entrepreneurial mission and success.
From 1905 to 1917, Herty headed the University of North Carolina’s chemistry department. Dubbed "Captain Charlie" by his students, contemporaneous accounts describe him as a logical, persuasive, and enthusiastic teacher. At about that time, his interest in engaging broader issues of science and society emerged. When World War I threatened the United States, he helped organize chemical research to counter poison gas.
He was president of the American Chemical Society in 1915 and 1916 and became the first full-time editor of the Journal of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry, the predecessor of the American Chemical Society’s weekly newsmagazine, Chemical & Engineering News. He was also the first president of the Synthetic Organic Chemicals Manufacturers Association, formed in 1921.
In a 1918 editorial, Herty called for the establishment of a "chemo-medical" research institute that would use chemistry to fight disease. Twelve years later, he was invited to the Oval Office to watch President Herbert Hoover sign the legislation that created the forerunner of today’s National Institutes of Health.
In 1932, he opened the non-profit Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory — today called the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center — and served as its leader until his death in 1938. The Herty Award, a gold medal inscribed with the phrase "For science and country," is awarded each year to an outstanding Southeastern chemist by the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society.
- Paper was so scarce Revolutionary War soldiers used pages ripped from books as wadding for their rifles.
- Benjamin Franklin, America's first paper merchant, helped start 18 paper mills in Virginia and surrounding areas.
- The average American uses about 700 pounds of paper and paper products a year. Thanks to recycling, we recover 40 percent of this paper for reuse.
- In the United States alone, papermakers recycle enough paper to fill 15 miles of boxcars each day.
- Papermaking fibers can typically be recycled 5 to 7 times before they become too short to be recycled again.
- Each year in the United States, more than 2 billion books, 350 million magazines, and 24 billion newspapers are published.
- One cord of wood (approximately 128 cubic feet) will yield 4.4 million commemorative-size postage stamps, or 61,370 standard envelopes, or as much as 2,000 pounds of paper.
- Paper from wood is a renewable resource. The United States has more trees today than 70 years ago. The forest industry alone plants more than 1.5 billion trees annually.
Facts produced in 2001.
The American Chemical Society designated Charles Herty’s Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory (now the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center) as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony on September 26, 2001, in Savannah, Georgia. The text of the plaque commemorating the landmark reads:
Charles Holmes Herty (1867-1938)—Georgia chemist, educator and advocate for the development of U.S. industries—founded and directed this laboratory, originally housed in a warehouse at 512 W. River Street provided by the Savannah Electric and Power Company. Herty's research proved that valuable products such as newsprint, white paper and rayon fibers could be made from young, fast-growing southern pine trees. The resulting technology catalyzed the pulp and paper industry in the South and helped revive the region's economy during the Great Depression. Cultivation of the southern pine also conserved the slow-growing northern hardwood forests. In 1938, the laboratory became the Herty Foundation now located on Brampton Road.
In 2012, the organization now known as the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center was transferred to Georgia Southern University.
Adapted for the internet from “Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory,” produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2001.
American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Charles Herty and the Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/savannahpaper.html(accessed Month Day, Year).
Learn more: About the Landmarks Program.
Take action: Nominate a Landmark and Contact the NHCL Coordinator.