The History of Ink


Historians believe the first ink was used more than 40,000 years ago, after archaeologists unearthed ancient cave art during a dig in El Castillo in northern Spain. The early ink was made using red, black or ochre manganese, with other dyes coming from elements found in nature, such as sap and animal blood.



The red outline of a deer, along with crude drawings of bison, ibex, long-extinct cows and a red disc-shaped painting on a corridor wall – now known as the “Panel of Hands” – were said to be around 40,800 years old.

Scientists say other artworks – including human handprints and drawings of hoofed animals and humans – found in caves on the Island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, date from around 39,900 years ago. In the early days of ink, it was used primarily for art work and the first purpose-made writing ink wasn’t developed until some 37,000 years later.



The first writing ink was created in around 2500BC in both China and Egypt. It was made from lamp black – a type of carbon which involved burning tar with vegetable oil and suspending the pigment in glue or gum to make sure it adhered to the paper, made from the papyrus plant.

Papyrus was largely replaced by parchment made from animal skin at the beginning of the 1st century BC. India ink had just been developed from lamp black, carbon black and charred animal bones, mixed with glue derived from animals to create a solid block of ink. Water was added before use to turn it to liquid. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written using this type of ink, although red cinnabar was used instead of carbon as its base.

In the 8th century, a better quality ink using chemical precipitation was invented. The iron gall ink, based on tannic acid and iron salt, was bound by resin and a quill pen was used for writing. This method was the standard mode of hand-writing right through to the 19th century.




Although printing using woodblocks began in China in around the 2nd century AD, it was time-consuming and expensive and only the select few could afford text documents.

In Europe, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press of 1457 revolutionised the printing industry and he had to formulate a new type of oil-based ink to go with it. It was necessary for the ink to adhere to metal, so it was carbon-based but with added lead, copper and titanium. It was said to be more like varnish than ink.


Lithographic ink

Lithography was invented and developed by German actor and playwright Aloys Senefelde in the late 18th century as a cheap means of printing theatrical works. Making use of the chemical principle that water and oil don’t mix, he first sketched his design on a porous stone using a greasy substance – the stone absorbed this. He wet the whole surface with a mixture of water and gum Arabic, which was only absorbed by the stone areas, as the design area repelled it.

Carefully avoiding the damp blank area, he then rolled on the ink – made of wax, soap, lampblack and oil – which was a greasy substance that coated the design area. A sheet of paper was pressed over the stone’s surface to create a clean impression of the design. This became a popular means of printing for artists.

The first steam lithographic press was invented in 1850 in France and was first used in the US in 1868. The method received a boost in the mid-1900s, as more and more printers began searching for fast and practical means of printing illustrations.

Lithography is still used today, as with a unique quality like no other, it produces a wide range of marks from subtle tones through to jet blacks.



The 1860s saw the advent of the typewriter and with it came a new type of ink. After the launch of the Hansen Writing Ball typewriter in 1865 which was reliant on an ink-soaked ribbon of cloth, ink was developed that would stay wet on the ribbon thanks to the addition of castor oil in the mix – it would quickly dry on the paper. The type of ink for typewriters remained constant for almost the next century.

On 31st July 1961, the IBM Selectric typewriter was launched. A highly-successful electric model that used a ribbon made of pigment-coated polymer tape rather than the standard ink-soaked ribbon, both manual and electric typewriters transferred the ink to the paper with the impact of the type.


Laser and inkjet printers

The birth of inkjet and laser printers meant more changes were necessary. Laser printers use an electrostatic system to transfer the ink, with the toner attracted to charged areas of the imaging drum. Ink used to be made of carbon powder, iron oxide and sugar but then a polymer mix was introduced, with the fuser melting the toner particles to bond with the paper.

Developed in the 1970s, inkjet printers worked by spraying tiny particles of ink on to the paper. Several types of ink were used: solvent, UV-curable, aqueous and dye-sublimation. Modern inkjet ink is far more sophisticated, containing detergent so the printer nozzle doesn’t clog and a dispersing agent to stop the pigments from clustering. Most inkjets today use water-based dye ink.


Whether they’ll last for 40,000 years – like those in the original cave drawings – we will never find out!

As one of the UK’s leading print companies, LEFA Print offers digital, lithographic and wide-format printing services utilising the latest state-of-the-art equipment. Our bespoke printing services will provide a quick and cost-effective solution to all your printing requirements.

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