United Wire Works

Text of booklet published late 1940s

Chapter 1

The paper on which I write these words, the paper on which they are printed and meet your eye, the paper that makes your daily and evening newspaper, the paper in which your cigarettes are rolled, these and hundreds of other forms of paper owe their existence to the wire weaving industry. This may seem an obvious statement to anyone concerned in the trade or industry. I would wager, however, that not one in ten thousand of the inhabitants of these islands would know this fact which affects one of the primary necessities of their lives.

The problem of the paper-maker is to construct a felted web or tissue of cellulose fibres, of a uniform thickness, strength, colour, and surface, suitable to the purpose for which the paper is intended. Actually the paper is an aqueous deposit of any vegetable fibre in the form of a sheet or web. This may sound an elaborate way of describing what is, after all, an every-day process. It is, however, the only way to describe something, the finished product of which you can feel between your fingers a hundred times a day. You can feel it when you pick up any newspaper or magazine, or when you handle any paper whether it be the cheapest form of newspaper or the most beautiful hand-made paper.

Now for this purpose the paper-maker must first take the fibres from the raw material which he is using, and this material may consist of wood pulp, flax, hemp, straw, and a host of other vegetable fibres. These fibres are first of all prepared chemically, in order to release the pure cellulose which they contain, and from which the paper has to be made. These fibres are then beaten up with water until they form an even mass of short cellulose fibres which, when run in a liquid stream on to the paper machine wire, will form an even web of wet pulp.

This wirecloth which we are discussing serves two purposes chiefly: Firstly, it carries the mixture of fibres and water forward, and allows the water to drain away, leaving the fibres felted together so strongly that, when they reach the end of the wirecloth, they can be peeled off in a continuous web, and passed on to be dried. This fine web of wirecloth appears, at a distance, to be a solid sheet of bronze metal, but, when examined more closely, or through a magnifying glass, you can see that it is not solid, but has both the warp and woof of a completed weave.

The invention of the prototype of the present-day paper machine was due to the genius of M. Louis Robert, a Frenchman, and a clerk in the service of Messrs Didot, of the Essónne Paper Mills. It was he who in 1798 first thought of using fine wirecloth in a continuous form for the production of paper. The invention was later introduced into Great Britain by Henry Fourdrinier, after whom the mechanism was named. He managed to get the assistance, and harness the enthusiasm, of Bryan Donkin, the engineer who started the first machine in England at Frogmore, in the year 1803. But it is to the inventive and imaginative mind of Louis Robert that the ordinary man owes his immense property of paper to-day.

At this point, one pauses to wonder how, before 1798, people managed to express themselves on the amount of paper then available, so permanently and unforgettably, especially in the century which ended with this epoch-making invention – a century particularly celebrated for the glory of its literature and the voluminousness of its letter-writing. The answer to that problem is that in those days less than half the population of Great Britain could read or write. The circulation of novels that were at once accepted as popular, of acknowledged masterpieces was infinitesimal as compared with those of to-day. As for letter-writing, it was indulged in (and indulged in at enormous length) by only a minority of the people who lived in these islands. In those days, the letter was a labour of love, and often a work of art. But after 1798, paper began to be the property of the people; and the eventual spread of the power to read and write allowed them to make use of it. To-day the immense circulation of books, scientific, fictional, technical, and specialist in a hundred differing ways, the great discrimination of the daily Press, the far-flung influence of the weekly and monthly journals, the mere fact that you can buy a theatre programme or obtain paper on which to advertise your goods is due to the inventiveness of a young Frenchman nearly a hundred and fifty years, past and, largely to the enterprise of a firm of industry that started in Glasgow a hundred and twenty-two years ago.

Since then the invention and the industry that sprang from it have, of course, developed and increased enormously. The fine web of wire is infinitely finer. The – endless – conveyor belt which is constructed from it has grown in width up to nearly twenty-seven feet, with the result that a much larger quantity of paper can be produced much more quickly. But the main improvement has been in quality, especially in the seaming process by which the ends of the wirecloth are joined together to form an endless belt. In the old days this seaming was a potential difficulty. It was liable to produce an uneven texture and mark the paper. Now the seams are an integral part of the warp and woof. They are all but invisible to the naked eye.

There have been many other improvements and advances. But, from the organisation point of view, the greatest was the establishment of The United Wire Works, Ltd., in 1897, with the eventual establishment of its headquarters in Granton in the twenties of this century. By this means an essentially national industry was largely co-ordinated and put on a widely national basis.

Could Mr William McMurray (whose portrait is the frontispiece of this book) emerge from the shades and visit the works and offices at Granton, he would be amazed. He would also, one believes and hopes, be delighted that the modest wire works which he started a hundred and twenty-two years ago in Glasgow, should have developed into a concern that is not only national but international in many of its multifarious aspects.

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