Charles Holmes Herty and The Paper Industry

Every day, millions of Americans rely on the innovations of Charles Holmes Herty, yet few of them have ever heard his name. Paper is plentiful in American schools, homes and offices because of Herty's discoveries about pine trees. Despite his relative obscurity, this forward-thinking chemist ensured the longevity of the paper industry and transformed the economic status of the southern United States. 

Paper Before Herty 

Before the 1930s, paper was derived primarily from old northern trees. Canadian spruce trees were a top choice for the job. Papermakers chose these trees because they weren't full of gummy resin. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to turn a tiny seedling into an old hardwood. Forest growth couldn't keep up with the rate of paper production, and the overall supply of this natural resource was dwindling. 

Producers didn't think that the pine trees that grew in the southern United States were a good substitute for Canadian spruce. Mature southern pine trees were rich with resin. This was considered okay if you wanted a brown final product, such as cardboard, but it was no good if you needed to produce white paper. The dark, sticky resin made it tricky to bleach the brown color out of pine pulp. 

Chemist On The Job 

By the 1930s, chemist Charles Holmes Herty was 65 years old had already carried out a full career. He'd led the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina and been president of both the American Chemical Society and the Synthetic Organic Chemicals Manufacturers Association. He had also invented the Naval Cup, a product used for getting turpentine from pine trees while still allowing them to grow. Despite his age and achievements, Herty's chemistry knowledge hadn't run out on him yet. Therefore, he turned his skills toward the paper industry. 

In his Savannah, Georgia, laboratory, Herty postulated that perhaps southern pines could be used for papermaking if producers relied on young trees instead of old ones. He suggested that the resin content might be lower in young trees. He focused his attention on trees that were, at the most, 20 years old. 

One of Herty's first steps toward revolutionizing the paper industry was to prove his resin-content theory. He carried out chemical tests involving dissolving, filtering and evaporating resin samples. His goal was to determine how much resin young pines contained. His procedures revealed that his young southern samples contained a comparable amount to that in the northern trees that were commonly used by paper manufacturers. 

Once Herty proved this fact in 1933, he was ready to use already-established papermaking procedures to transform the pine trees into the material needed for papermaking. Herty had previously spent time in Germany. There, he'd first heard about using acidic sulfite to turn wood into pulp. Those under his directive applied this method to young pine trees. Through a chemical process, the wood was broken down, purified and made ready to receive bleaching treatments. 

It was no small task for Herty's lab to produce enough pulp for a batch of paper. His workers toiled around the clock to create the pine pulp. Once the task was finished, the lab workers loaded their product into refrigerated train cars and shipped them off to Canada. There, at no charge, a paper mill converted the pine pulp into sheets of white paper. The first newspaper to use this product for its pages was the Soperton News. Those pages provided clear evidence that young pine trees really could be turned into white paper. 

Economic Boost for the South

Herty's discoveries were industry-changing, but his work did more than just revolutionize the manufacture of paper. They also provided a new industry for southern states during a time of economic crisis. Unlike mature trees, young pines didn't take long to grow. Farmers could plant and harvest these plants relatively quickly, so raising pines became an appealing way for many southerners to make a living. 

Paper mills sprang up around the South so that trees wouldn't have to be shipped off to Canada for processing. By 1940, the southern states had become home to 15 paper mills, which greatly boosted the economic prospects of the region. These mills were a vital source of employment at a time when jobs were desperately needed. One mill alone could employ thousands of people. These mills helped transform the South from a primarily agricultural region into an industrial one. 

Lasting Contribution

Despite the burst of industry that resulted from Herty's work, the chemist himself did not financially profit from his discoveries. Instead, his generous work paved the way for others' success and the widespread availability of paper. Even today, the tree-farming and paper industries are thriving in the South thanks to Herty's discoveries. In 2002, 4.5 million American people worked in related jobs. 

Although Charles Holmes Herty may not be a household name, he is still widely recognized among those in chemistry fields. In his honor, the American Chemical Society's Georgia Section annually bestows the Charles H. Herty Medal on a chemist living in the southeastern part of the country. The purpose of this prestigious award is to recognize the contributions of chemists who, like the award's namesake, have made significant contributions to chemistry and the world at large. 

Without Herty's contributions, it's hard to say where either the paper industry or the country would be today. Paper might be scarcer, and northern forests would almost certainly contain fewer trees. The entire landscape of the southern United States might even be different. Herty could have retired from chemistry when he reached age 65, but he instead used his later years to continue making significant contributions to the world around him.