Robert, Nicolas Louis

SUBJECT AREA: Paper and printing
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b. 2 December 1761 Paris, France
d. 8 August 1828 Dreux, France
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French inventor of the papermaking machine.
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Robert was born into a prosperous family and received a fair education, after which he became a lawyer's clerk. In 1780, however, he enlisted in the Army and joined the artillery, serving with distinction in the West Indies, where he fought against the English. When dissatisfied with his prospects, Robert returned to Paris and obtained a post as proof-reader to the firm of printers and publishers owned by the Didot family. They were so impressed with his abilities that they promoted him, c. 1790, to "clerk inspector of workmen" at their paper mill at Essonnes, south of Paris, under the control of Didot St Leger.
It was there that Robert conceived the idea of a continuous papermaking machine. In 1797 he made a model of it and, after further models, he obtained a patent in 1798. The paper was formed on a continuously revolving wire gauze, from which the sheets were lifted off and hung up to dry. Didot was at first scathing, but he came round to encouraging Robert to make a success of the machine. However, they quarrelled over the financial arrangements and Robert left to try setting up his own mill near Rouen. He failed for lack of capital, and in 1800 he returned to Essonnes and sold his patent to Didot for part cash, part proceeds from the operation of the mill. Didot left for England to enlist capital and technical skills to exploit the invention, while Robert was left in charge at Essonnes. It was the Fourdrinier brothers and Bryan Donkin who developed the papermaking machine into a form in which it could succeed. Meanwhile the mill at Essonnes under Robert's direction had begun to falter and declined to the point where it had to be sold. He had never received the full return from the sale of his patent, but he managed to recover his rights in it. This profited him little, for Didot obtained a patent in France for the Fourdrinier machine and had two examples erected in 1814 and the following year, respectively, neatly side-tracking Robert, who was now without funds or position. To support himself and his family, Robert set up a primary school in Dreux and there passed his remaining years. Although it was the Fourdrinier papermaking machine that was generally adopted, it is Robert who deserves credit for the original initiative.
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Further Reading
R.H.Clapperton, 1967, The Papermaking Machine, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 279–83 (provides a full description of Robert's invention and patent, together with a biography).
LRD

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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