The fact that we can't seem to do without 'paper' highlights the importance of its invention pretty well. Even though the Chinese are given the credit for its invention―a feat they achieved in 105 AD, the history of paper can be traced back to 3,000 BC, when it was used in its crude form in Ancient Egypt. Going by the definition of paper, it is a material which is made from cellulose pulp which is derived from certain types of grass, wood, or rag. Interestingly, the term 'paper' is derived from the Cyperus papyrus plant, which was used by the Egyptians to make papyrus―the crude form of paper.
Papyrus in Egypt
In 3,000 BC, Ancient Egyptians used papyrus sedge (Cyperus papyrus), a herbaceous perennial plant that grew along the banks of Nile, to make a writing material, which was referred to as 'papyrus'. This water-reed species was first soaked in water and eventually, pressed or beaten with some hard substance to make it flat. The thin flat sheet was then dried in the sun and eventually used as a writing material. The Egyptians also exported this writing material to other civilizations such as Rome and Greece.
Archaeological excavations at numerous sites of the world, including South America, reveal that a similar process was followed in these regions somewhere around 2 AD. At one point of time, the demand for 'papyrus' had increased manifolds, and parchment―a writing material made from the skin of an animal (a sheep, goat, or calf), was introduced as a substitute for Egyptian papyrus.
Invention of Paper in China
The next milestone came in 105 AD, when the Chinese began making paper during the Han Dynasty regime. The credit for the invention of paper (as well as paper-making) goes to Cai Lun, a Chinese eunuch at the Han imperial court. Lun used old rags, mulberry plant, fishnet, and hemp waste to make a sheet of paper.
Paper-making was one of the four famous inventions of ancient China; the other three being the compass, gunpowder, and printing. As time elapsed, the Chinese made quite a few changes in the process as well as the product. They began coating paper with dye to make it durable and protect it from insects. Similarly, rags were replaced by bamboo, which turned out to be a much more viable option.
Spread of Paper in Asia
In 604 AD, paper-making started spreading to rest of the world from China, with Korea being the first nation outside China to start this process. In 610 AD, it spread from Korea to the neighboring nation of Japan, when a Korean monk named Don-cho brought the technique to this country.
The Japanese added their own innovations and started making paper from fresh bast fibers of mulberry and kozo plant. By 645 AD, paper-making had reached Tibet and eventually to the Indian subcontinent. The Chinese tried to curb its spread in a bid to guard their monopoly. In the meanwhile, 704 AD marked the beginning of woodblock printing in China and the Chinese were able to roll out the first printed newspaper in the world.
Spread of Paper in Middle-East and Europe
In 751 AD, when the Chinese army lost to the Ottoman troops in the Battle of Talas, the Chinese prisoners gave away the secrets of paper-making to Arabs. This paved the way for first paper-making industry in the Middle East, which began in Baghdad in 793 AD.
Even Arabs tried to establish their monopoly by ensuring that this trade didn't spread to other parts of the world, but failed. The technique of paper-making reached Egypt, from where it had started in its crude form, in the 10th century. By 1150 AD, paper industry was introduced in Europe by Spaniards. This century also marked the beginning of the use of paper for packaging.
The major milestone came in 19th century when rag pulp was replaced by wood pulp for making paper. While paper was an expensive commodity across the world initially, the use of wood pulp, advent of paper mills, and introduction of different types of paper ensured that its cost came down drastically over the period. As time elapsed, the use of paper went beyond writing and packaging. The introduction of paper money, bags, plates, etc., made it one of the most important commodity of our life, something which we can't do without.