The Evolution of Ink
On the walls of a cave in northern Spain lie a myriad of 40,000 year old paintings depicting wild animals and the human form. These ancient images are a relic from ages past, a notation from time gone by; enlightening modern civilization of the more primitive cultures that preceded them. Paintings such as these are considered to be the some of the first known uses of ink. Ink has forever been the elixir of poets and wordsmiths, the means by which people communicated with one another and left clues for their descendants that would serve as remnants of the past that would illuminate future generations of the historical events that shaped the present. Since those days, the composition of ink has changed greatly to become what it is today.
Ink was used exclusively for artistic purposes for several thousand years. It wasn’t until approximately 2.500 B.C. that ink was first used as a means of true writing, a craft created by ancient civilizations in Egypt and China. These inks typically consisted of burned tar and oils, combined with natural gum or some other sticky substance to ensure that the words remained on the writing surface. They possessed a dark black color, provided by a type of carbon called lamp black, which was a pigment that wouldn’t fade or vanish over time. The invention of this type of ink coincided with the emergence of early forms of paper, namely papyrus. The problem with papyrus was that it was not very versatile or durable, so it as replaced by parchment (a product derived from animal skins) by the first century B.C. The lamp black form of ink was still used on parchment, and a later version called India ink added animal glue to bind the ingredients together. This caused it to take the form of a block for easy storage, and water would be applied to the block when one intended to write. The primary disadvantage of India ink was that it required an absorbent writing surface, and if the surface in question was not ideal, the ink would flake off rather quickly. In the years that followed (around the 12th century), a new innovation manifested itself in the form of a chemical compound using iron products and tannic acids.
For the first several thousand years of writing using ink, it was performed by hand; until the second century A.D. in China, when the original woodblock printing presses became available. Carbon-based ink remained the norm, but the expensive and labor-heavy nature of these printing presses presented a problem. However, in 1040 AD, a Chinese man named Bi Sheng introduced a printing press build from wooden and ceramic materials, and copper presses were used by the 12th century (also in China, as well as Korea). European civilizations arrived late to the party, so to speak. Their first landmark development took place between 1436 AD and 1450 AD, when Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press with cast metal components. This method was significantly less expensive, and it allowed for books and other writings to be mass-produced and distributed. Gutenberg also created a new type of ink that was more suited for use on a metal surface. It was carbon-based; but Gutenberg added copper, titanium, and lead to the mixture. Many people describe this form of ink as more of a varnish than a true ink.
The invention of the printing press ushered in the next great and formative era in this history of printing an ink, as people had a legitimate way to manufacture larger quantities of their work. The Hansen Writing Ball typewriter was invented in the 1860s, and provided businesses with a new method of correspondence. Typewriters used a strip of cloth that was dipped in ink, which was combined with castor oil to maintain its moisture until the ink was applied to the page. Typewriters, like any other form of technology; eventually met their demise. The creation that replaced the typewriter was the inkjet printer, which hit the market in the 1960s and 1970s. Early inkjet printers were very similar to the typewriter in many ways, as they used metal rods to form the letters on the page. By the late 1970s, Hewlett-Packard introduced the first inkjet printer, which used magnetized plates to print the ink on paper; with a much more advanced form of ink that would be absorbed into the paper and was unlikely to fade over a brief span of time.
Ink has come a long way since its inception in antediluvian civilizations. It no longer consists primarily of tar or elements derived from animals. Printing off a Word document is an effortless and brisk task, whereas ancient people groups tediously wrote out everything by hand. The cave paintings provide a glimpse into the daily lives of our predecessors, and the vivid colors and careful brushstrokes are much more than merely what they appear to be on the surface. It is compelling to think about the fact that future generations might look at a laser printer as an antiquated and primitive form of technology, but one that is informative of their past.