What Does the History of Writing Materials Tell Us about Their Future?

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Updated on Jan 07, 2013

Grade Level: High School; Type: Physical Science, Social Science


Observe trends in the properties of writing materials over the period of 5000 years and extrapolate to a future time. The goal is develop a hypothesis that can be used to predict future trends in writing materials.

Research Questions:

  • How have the materials used for writing evolved over time?
  • Is it possible to estimate the thicknesses and properties of writing materials in the future based on historical trends?
  • How do projections for the future relate to current trends in digital technology?

Since earliest recorded history, people have used clay tablets, tree leaves and bark, silk, animal skins, paper, and pixels on a computer screen to share written messages. The materials have been growing thinner over time.

Although people were leaving messages on cave walls 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, the first examples of writing did not appear until about 5000 years ago when Mesopotamian scribes began writing on clay tablets. The tablets are said to have been about the thickness of a pie crust. The Egyptians developed a more flexible writing surface by joining strips of papyrus and then placing a cross layer on top. The layered papyrus sheets were then hammered flat, dried in the sun, and then polished smooth. Up to 20 sheets were then pasted together and rolled up into a scroll.

By the 2nd century BC, the Greeks were using parchment made from goat or sheep skins. Parchment had two advantages over papyrus: both sides could be written on, and its thickness could be modified according to need.

According to legend, paper was invented in 105 AD in China. Paper was thinner and more flexible than papyrus or parchment. Papermaking had spread to the Arab world by the 8th century, and surfaced in Spain in the 12th. However, paper did not come into common use in Europe until the 15th century, when the printing press was invented.

In digital books, each page is coated with millions of microscopic particles enclosed in tiny capsules. Each of the capsules responds to an electronic charge, producing text on the display. The capsules are about half the thickness of a human hair. In this project, we'll explore what the evolution of writing materials might tell us about their future.


  • Reference materials
  • Spreadsheet plotting software

Experimental Procedure

  1. Review the histories of writing and writing materials.
  2. Prepare a table that compares writing material, its approximate date of invention, how long it was in widespread use, and its approximate thickness. Use the Internet and books to obtain this information.
  3. Plot the thickness of the writing materials as a function of date of invention and the length of time it was used.
  4. Experiment with different types of plots (linear-linear, linear-log, log-log) until you find one that can be extrapolated to a time beyond the present.
  5. Formulate a hypothesis about the thicknesses and types of material that will be used for writing in the future.
  6. Track the characteristic dimensions of digital displays from the time they were first invented up until the present.
  7. Compare your hypothesis with your observations about digital display technology. Revise the hypothesis if necessary, and consider ways to obtain additional data to test it.


Approximate Date Invented

Time in Use

Approximate Thickness

Material 1

Material n

Terms/Concepts: Clay tablets; Mesopotamia; Papyrus; Egypt; Parchment; Greece; Paper; China; Digital books


Dr. Frost has been preparing curriculum materials for middle and high school students since 1995. After completing graduate work in materials science at the University of Virginia, he held a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Stanford. He is the author of The Globalization of Trade, an introduction to the economics of globalization for young readers.

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