Nicholas-Louis Robert (1761–1828)

The French inventor Nicholas-Louis Robert created the first continuous paper machine to begin the industrialisation of paper manufacturing. He received little credit for his ideas and the machine was developed and put into production by the Fourdrinier brothers in England.

Robert was born in Paris. He joined the army in 1780 and rose to the rank of sergeant-major, fighting in the Caribbean against the British during the American War of Independence. In 1791 he became clerk at the Didot printing and publishing house in Paris. When he moved as a manager to the Didot paper factory, south of the city at Corbeil-Essonnes, he became interested in the potential for modernisation. He was frustrated by the hand-method of making paper, one sheet at a time, with numerous workers. In 1797 he devised a machine to make paper in continuous sheets with a much smaller workforce. There were many problems initially but Didot encouraged Robert to continue. His improved prototype consisted of a continuous wire screen supplied with a stream of pulp and then passed through rollers to squeeze out the water. The paper was laid by hand across a series of bars to dry.

Robert patented his machine in 1799 with Didot’s support. The French government appointed an engineer to work with Robert on improvements but progress disrupted by the French Revolution. Didot bought the patent and prototype from Robert and in 1801 Didot’s English brother-in-law John Gamble took the project to the Fourdrinier brothers, who were paper merchants. They invested great resources in the further development of the machine by the engineer Bryan Donkin. The improved machine carried the finished paper onto rollers to dry. It was used at their Frogmore paper mill north of London from 1803. The Fourdriniers began selling machines and exporting them in 1807 after registering their own patent but competitors breached their patent and the brothers were bankrupted by the costs of suing them. Nevertheless, the paper machine became known internationally as the ‘Fourdrinier’. It was used widely, bringing about the industrialisation of the paper industry. Productivity increased dramatically and paper could be made to almost any practical size, including very large sheets for wallpaper, newspapers or printing books several pages at a time.

Soon after the first Fourdrinier machine was installed in France in 1811, Nicholas-Louis Robert left the paper industry. He instead established a small elementary school and worked as a teacher.