The History Of Printing And Ink Dec 15, 2014 14:00 by Matt Bird

Here at Stinkyink, we feel it’s necessary to respect and support those who have got you to where you are in life. And we wouldn’t be the UK’s leading printer cartridge supplier without, you guessed it, printer ink! That’s why we’ve invested significant time and effort into making a comprehensive series of “History of Ink” articles.

In the 21st century it is difficult to appreciate how much printing is an accepted part of our everyday lives. Look around you, if you are sat at home you likely have a book or magazine that’s been printed and mass produced; five hundred years ago this type of print would be beyond comprehension, bordering on witchcraft! At home or work we use printers, photocopiers and faxes to produce and copy thousands of pages of text and image, usually in colour, without a second thought of how this process developed and how far it influences our everyday lives. Imagine for a moment how different life would be if we could not mass produce this material but were instead reliant on scribes and artists to produce everything by hand.



The Beginning Of Printing

Our history begins with ancient cultures using ink for writing and drawing. We know this information from archaeological evidence that remains and from written texts that have survived.

Prehistoric Europe:An Example of a European cave painting

In Europe this time period is known as ‘prehistoric’ or a time before written evidence. Cave paintings have been found across Europe that used red, ochre or black manganese. The inks and dyes came from sap, animal blood and other things found in nature and cave painters would use walls instead of paper. They would use animal bones to suck up the ink and to blow the ink into shapes on the wall.

The Middle East:

The Islamic Empires used a writing instrument called a galam which was usually made from a reed. Burnt resins such as tar or oil and then honey or gum were added before being compressed and dried. Similar to the Chinese, early ink was compressed into a tablet which made it easier to transport.  Evidence of printing exists from around 3000 BC, where an impress would be rolled onto clay tablets to copy and duplicate images. Generally, for 4,000 years all writing was done by hand, one character at a time. This was copied out by hand by a scribe and was so expensive  only the rich could afford this.

Ancient Egypt:

A sample of Egyptian Papyrus with hieroglyphicsOne of the many things that Ancient Egyptians gave to the world was black ink. This was made by mixing black soot with vegetable oil and beeswax, gelatine and gum may also have been used. To make ink of different colours a different material was used instead of soot, for example, ochre. The fact that so many clearly legible pieces of writing survive to this day is testament to the quality of this ink. Egyptian scribes used a soft reed, with which the ink was brushed on. In Ancient Egypt stencils were used to decorate tombs, where sculptors created an outline around this pattern. Once complete this would be decorated with paint, usually a bright colour such as red, yellow or blue.

Ancient Greece:

The Greeks used a hard reed as a pen that was split at the tip and cut into a nib which needed to be constantly sharpened. The most common form of writing was a stylus on wax or clay. The wax was poured into a hollowed out depression in piece of wood.  Papyrus was available from Egypt on which ink was used. Since papyrus was expensive and sometimes not available parchment was developed. Ink was used on the parchment. Writing could be carved into wood or stone for signs or plaques.

Ancient Rome:

Ancient Romans also used Egyptian papyrus to write on but this was very valuable. They used quills for their pens and their ink contained soot, gum, vinegar and sometimes even octopus ink. Imperial Rome had a large population, to meet demand for printed works, battalions of slaves would copy out the works of the great classical heroes.  ‘Books’ in Ancient Rome were simply a large piece of papyrus with two wooden poles on with side. News was passed on through the ActaDiurna, or government announcements by Julius Caesar; these were carved into wood or metal and put up in public places.



Printing in East Asia


Evidence of the earliest Chinese inks comes from around 256 BC, these inks were made from soot and animal glue. We can trace back the use of inks with the use of natural plant dyes, animal and mineral links as well as ground up materials such as graphite. The Chinese brush is believed to have been invented by Ming Ti’en in the Third Century BC alongside the development of paper, however there is evidence that painting on silk occurred much earlier than this.

This was a fascination for Chinese scholars and many treatise and tracts were written on this. The chief ingredient for high quality ink was lampblack (made from burning vegetable oils) and glue. The best soot was made from burning specially selected pine over inverted pottery jars that trapped the soot. The soot was then mixed with glue, which could be made from horn or animal hides.

Chinese ink in Ancient Times was sold in Inksticks or Inkcakes, which could be round or rectangular. The  ink could be ground on a inkstone and when mixed with water could be used for writing. The advantages of the Inksticks were that they were easily transportable and that they did not need to be stored in ceramic pots. Printing has been viewed as one of Ancient China’s greatest inventions and was a natural consequence of the development of paper and ink.

Block printing

Early examples of printing have been found in China that use the block printing method to print on textiles and later onto paper. The earliest woodblock prints found in China date from around 220BC and are printed flowers on different coloured silk, this became more common after the 7th century. This technique involves using glue to stick a thin piece of paper to wood; the characters are then carved into the wood, creating an impression of the text or images.

Once the ink is applied to the woodcut then it can be used to print onto cloth or paper. An ingenious but time consuming invention: a new board would have to be cut for each different page and any mistakes would meanstarting the block again from scratch. The first book ever published in 868 was the Vajracchedike or ‘Diamond’ Sutra, printed by this method.

Moveable type

Moveable type was developed by Bi, Sheng c1045-58 and was used by the North Song dynasty to print paper money.  This method uses moveable components to reproduce text and characters; Bi Sheng arranged characters on an iron plate which could then be reused. This was quicker and was a better method to reproduce text and paved the way for the Gutenberg Press 400 years later which made use of this technique.



Chinese developments in print spread across Eastern Asia where there is evidence that woodblock printed books existed in Japan from the 8th century. By the 11th century the Japanese market was dominated by Buddhist texts and images; the advent of print initially had a limited impact in Japan where the process was time-consuming and too expensive to be widely accessible. Widespread illiteracy also meant that there was no market demand for printed works. As a result, it took until 1650 before the first illustrated book appeared in Japan.



In Korea there was a much higher demand for both religious and secular books and there is evidence of a transition from woodblock printing to moveable type print as far back as the 13th century.  A technique for bronze casting was adapted and as a result of printing a simplified alphabet of 24 characters was developed. This was called Hangul to make type casting more feasible and uniform. The new alphabet was aimed at use by the common people which is ironic, since unlike in Europe where the advent of the printing press made texts accessible to a wide range of social classes, in Korea printed texts were confined to the noble classes of society.



Advances To Printing Pre-15th Century


Anglo-Saxon Britain

Despite the fact that the Chinese had developed moveable type, printing in Europe during the same period did not progress at the same rate. From the period we call the ‘dark ages’ to the 15th century, the format of producing text remained the same. From Anglo-Saxon Britain 400 manuscripts survive, which form the basis of historical evidence about how people lived before the Norman Conquest. This is an impressive achievement since producing written works during this period was a long and laborious process: monks in monasteries would copy out the text by hand and illustrate it beautifully.

However, the margin of error would be high and this is clearly a very time consuming task. The survival of these texts, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, to the Lindisfarne Gospels, becomes a testament to the huge amount of scribes needed to produce pieces of work.

Norman England

By the 11th century, there was a greater need for texts due to Norman administrative and religious reforms. The development of universities also contributed to an increasing demand for texts; however, the method of creating books remained the same and scribes in monasteries continued to create these works by hand. This had the effect of making books incredibly expensive, and only the rich were able to afford them.

14th Century and beyond

There is evidence that block cutters and textile stampers were being used in early medieval Europe which could print letters and patterns onto fabrics. Woodblock printing had arrived in Europe in the 14th century from China, as had paper, and led to the development of printing patterns onto textiles. Woodblock printing involves carving patterns and lines into a block of wood and printing this onto paper. Most images were printed on cloth to be displayed on walls or on altars. With the increasing availability of paper after the 14th century, woodcuts became more widely available and more popular. This was a technique particularly used in Germany to produce religious scenes. This still remained a labour intensive task and the original wood blocks would need to be continuously replaced.  The use of woodblock printing led to a new artistic style in medieval Europe where pictures had simple, thin lines which made printing easier. Other methods were developed by the 15th century which involved cutting lines into metal and printing from this.

In Early Medieval Europe therefore, printing was a laborious and expensive process that required skilled craftsmen. Producing printed material took time and complete books were very valuable although this didn’t matter to the majority of the population who remained illiterate. With the development of paper came a technological revolution in the 15th century: the printing press, which could now mass produce printed text.



Printing in the Renaissance

Out of the dark we come into the bright renaissance.

Johannes Gutenberg & the Printing Revolution:

Johannes Gutenberg was born in the town of Mainz in Germany and died penniless there in 1468. His invention however, revolutionised printed text and kick-started the Reformation in Europe, the Renaissance and the scientific revolution for he was the father of the printing press; an innovation that rightly deserves to be called a revolution.

How did it work?

In around 1440AD after a lot of time experimenting with different designs, Gutenberg created a printing press that was operated by hand. Gutenberg experimented with materials and made an alloy of lead, tin and antimony; this produced high quality books and proved to print very successfully. It was based on existing screw pressures and incorporated previous technologies; however this development included a matrix (a mould for casting letters) which is estimated to contain 290 separate letter boxes. His new technology enabled a quick way to produce very precise moulds.

The press worked by rolling ink over the raised surfaces of moveable hand-set block letters which were held within a wooden frame. This was then pressed against a sheet of paper and it made the creation of metal moveable type possible in large quantities. The metal type pieces were an advantage over earlier wooden block printing as they were much more durable and made the text more uniform.

As well as the technology, Gutenberg developed an oil-based ink which was more resilient than water based inks, inks previously used for handwriting tended to blur when used in the printing press. This ink was made from soot, turpentine and walnut oil and may even have included ingredient such as litharge (lead monoxide) and unknown plant extracts. Gutenberg also used both paper and velum as printing materials to improve the quality of printing.

The Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg experimented with different methods and between 1450-55 produced the Gutenberg Bible; this was produced with 42 lines on each page and is sometimes known as the 42 line Bible. It is not known how many copies were actually produced, it is estimated between 180-200, but only 22 of these survive today that are complete and they are probably the most valuable printed material in the world.

Why was it so important?

Gutenberg’s press was the first method of mass producing books and could produce around 3,500 pages every day. By the end of the 15th century printing had spread across 286 cities and into 12 European countries. William Caxton introduced the first printing press into England in 1476, publishing Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and printed more than 100 books in his lifetime. Printing centres began to emerge in other areas, such as in Venice. By the end of the century over 20 million copies had being produced in Europe; by the end of the 16th century this had increased to over 150 million copies.

As books became more widely available and written in a vernacular language rather than Latin, more people had access to these texts and as consequence literacy increased across Europe; a consequence of this was the decline of Latin as the language of published works, this in turn led to the standardisation of spellings. In the Middle Ages information was passed on through public readings and, although this tradition continued well into the nineteenth century, reading developed to become an independent activity.

There had been criticisms before Martin Luther about the Roman Catholic Church and its failings but it was Luther and other Protestant Reformers who were able to successfully disseminate their ideas across Europe and directly affect the development of Protestantism. Pamphlets were produced on a large scale, as were Holy Images and religious playing cards. The Protestant Reformation would simply not have happened without the printing press and the mass production of the printed word led to the Wars of Religion that would so dominate the subsequent centuries.

The Printing Press helped to stimulate the economy in Europe, not only with the increasing popularity of books but also with the development of industries related to printing such as paper making. The printing press can rightly be seen as creating an ‘information revolution’, similar to what we have seen in the modern day with the development of the internet, and as a result books were not just published on religious matters but a wider range of subjects became more widely available such as novels, music and travel guides. The Renaissance had arrived.

In the Middle Ages knowledge was controlled closely by the church, with the advent of mass print this control was weakened and knowledge was spread rapidly. More accessible texts and the Reformation had challenged the church’s dominance and opened the doors to new scientific discoveries. People started to explore new aspects of science and medicine and made household names of people like Copernicus and Newton who were challenging accepted beliefs. This in turn opened the way for greater industrial and technological developments and made Europe a leading world power in the centuries to come.



The Industrial Era Of Printing

Gutenberg’s press’s ability to combine both text and illustrations allowed printing to became a popular tool for the publication of artistic designs, leading perfectly into the huge industrial era.

Engraving and Etching

His advancements were aided by developments in engraving and etching. Engraving (creating a design onto a surface by creating grooves in it) had been used for thousands of years as a way and was popular with metalworkers in the Middle Ages: the development of print allowed engraved images to be transferred to paper for the first time.  Etching had also been in use since the Middle Ages and involved using an acid to cut into unprotected metal. It was applied to printing using iron plates.


In the mid-eighteenth century Ludwig von Seigen developed a new method of printing images called Mezzotint (‘half-tinted’). This allowed a reproduction of shades of tone in a picture and became particularly popular with reproductions of portraits. However, this was a difficult and labour intensive process. In 1768 Aquatint allowed artists to give tone to etchings, this process involved the application of different levels of acid to create a tonal effect. This development met the growing demand for printed images at a reasonable price and books of watercolour landscapes could be produced that were then coloured by hand. In Japan there is evidence that colour portraits were being produced from 1740; these were created by cutting an extra wood block for every colour in the image and then inking each block with its own colour. Colour images were not produced in Europe until the 19th century.

Inks were constantly improved during this period and linseed and other vegetable oils were used to improve the quality of ink. Experiments demonstrated that heating the oil changed it into a varnish which sped up drying time and made the ink viscose: this had clear advantages in printing.

Lithography and Chromolithography

In 1796 a Bavarian named Alois Senefelder invented Lithography which allowed the application of text or printed images to different surfaces. He discovered by accident that grease and water could be used as a basis for printing. The story goes that he had been experimenting with printing with stone (unsuccessfully) for some time until one day he jotted down his mother’s laundry list onto a stone using greasy ink. Marks are made on a stone surface in greasy ink; ink is applied and the stone is then wetted and pressed to paper. The ink will stick to the greasy marks and nothing else, producing high quality prints. However, this method of printing remained obscure until the 1890s and used only for caricatures during the 19th century, for example Honoré Daumier. It did nevertheless make some inroads in the field of print and tints began to be added from the 1820s where second and third stones were used to add shades of colour to images. This is known as chromolithography – colour printing.

Colour Printing and Zincography

Colour printing still remained time consuming and expensive as it required a number of different plates which were added over the original design; nevertheless, it allowed people to hang colour prints and pictures on walls and it became increasingly popular. Hand colouring still remained popular and Ordinance Survey maps were still coloured by hand as late as 1875. Zincography later replaced this method, using zinc plates instead of stones, and remained the most popular method of colour printing until the 1930s.

Rotary Cylinders and Rotary Presses

With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries came developments in printing. Changes in industry allowed printing presses to be powered by steam, therefore alleviating the problem of the manpower required for serious mass production. Friedrich Koenig, a German printer, patented a steam press in England in 1810 that used a rotary cylinder to print images rather than plates. Koenig, with the assistance of German engineer Andreas Bauer, have a significant role in the development of print as they sold two models to The Times of London in 1814.

These machines were a revolution as they were capable of producing 1,100 prints per hour and later updates including the addition of printing on both sides of the page.  Their contribution to the development of print cannot be underestimated as they provided the technology to produce newspapers on a mass scale and in the process made them more accessible to a wider audience and improved the adult literacy rates. It is no coincidence that we still refer to mass media today as the ‘press’.

By 1843, the steam powered rotary press had arrived from the United States. The rotary cylinder had made great strides in mass producing paper but still had to be fed individual sheets. The rotary printing press worked by being fed rolled paper, therefore creating a continuous feed and allowing the production of millions of copies of a page to be created in a day.

Jobbing Press and Offset Printing

For more commercial needs, the jobbing press was a much smaller press that allowed the printing of smaller pieces that were business specific for example, business cards, envelopes and advertisements. Job printing was a quick and cost effective method of meeting commercial needs in the 19th century. In the 1870s Offset printing was also developed where the ink is not pressed directly onto the paper but is distributed from a metal plate onto a rubber mat where it is then set onto paper. This was a cost-effective method, allowing an even distribution of ink, even on large print jobs, the ink also dried very rapidly.



Printing In The 21st Century

With the advent of the 20th century mass printing was common. Books were widely available and accessible, as were a number of daily newspapers, and colour prints were becoming increasingly common. Screenprinting had been developed by the Chinese centuries before as a method of printing patterns onto silk and fabrics. In 1907, Samuel Simon patented this in England and became an increasingly popular method to print patterns onto fabrics and particularly for wallpaper. Many of the techniques developed in the 19th century continued well into the 20th century. It was not until the 1960s that major developments occurred, alongside the development of computer technology.


The photocopier had been around in a primitive form since the 18th century but remained an incredibly labour intensive technology. A significant breakthrough occurred when an American student, Chester Carlson, invented the process of ‘xerography’ (this is translated to mean writing without conventional ink). It took Carlson ten years to find a company to market the product but the Haloid Company of New York agreed to develop it, they later became known as the Xerox Corporation.

In 1958 the first commercial photocopier was made available. Although colour toner was available from the 1950s, the first commercially available colour photocopiers were not available until 1968. Digital technology is increasingly being incorporated into 21st century photocopiers and it is not unusual to find printer/scanner/photocopier combinations widely available that reduce the cost of colour photocopying in the home, says Manuel Barris.


Laser Printers:

Xerox also developed the laser printer in 1969 based on a modification of a Xerox copier. The image is produced by the scanning of a laser across the printer’s photoreceptor. Laser printers could provide high quality printing in a small amount of time and allowed business to be flexible in their use of fonts. This was a significant development as this was the first fully networked method of printing.

Commercially, the first laser printer was the IBM model 3800 that was introduced in 1975; this was not designed for home or office use but for the purposes of commercial mass production. It was not until 1981 that the Xerox Star was released for business use, but high costs limited its potential market. As personal computers became more widespread during the 1980s, HP released their Laserjet 8ppm in 1984 followed by laser printers from other industries that became smaller and faster. Over time Laser printers have become smaller and faster as the technology has developed and, as a result, costs have fallen tremendously over time. Laser printers use a solid powder as ink.

Dot Matrix:

In 1970 the dot matrix printer made its first appearance. A dot matrix printer, unlike a laser jet, works by running backwards and forward, or up and down, and imprinting by striking the ink soaked ribbon against the paper. Unlike laser printers, which were designed with business in mind, dot matrix printers were accessible and cost effective, aimed at the domestic market, and they remained the most popular printers at use in the home until the 1990s. Colour printing was available, by imbuing ribbons with colour, but the quality was poor and monochrome remained the standard. They were eventually replaced by inkjet printers.

Inkjet Printers:

Inkjet printers create images through droplets of ink on the paper, the ink remains in liquid form. In the 1970s inkjet printer that could reproduce computer images were developed by Epson and HP and became commercially available in 1988 with HP’s Deskjet; the market today is dominated by the four main manufacturers: Canon, Epson, HP and Lexmark. The major advantages of Inkjet printers are that they can reproduce high quality colour images and that they are affordable which has helped to make them the most popular printers of the 21st century.


We currently live in an age of technological revolution and innovation. Mobile phones can also be used as computers and it is possible to link printers wirelessly to networked computers and even to other mobile devices. Through the advent of digital photography we can now take a photograph and have it reproduced almost instantly on paper or inserted into documents such as newspaper articles. If you walk into any shop providing printing consumables you will be given a vast array of choice in the printers you buy and the inks you can use (including recycled and refillable) , to suit you and your circumstances.

New printing technology has however brought its own problems: manufacturers are constantly developing ways to make their products more environmentally friendly, hence the proliferation of companies who dispose and recycle old cartridges(this is particularly important as old cartridges can sit in landfills for up to 1,000 years). From the early computers and printers that required a whole room to operate today we have computers that can fit into the palm of the hand and printers that are designed to fit onto desks in our homes. We have come a long way from hand written books and carved woodblocks to being able to print colour images in our own home.



And That’s Printing To The Present Day

With concept printers for printing we’re used to plus the rapid rise of new technology and 3D printing  I’m sure this article has far more places to go in the coming years. If you’ve made it all the way through this plethora of information then well done to you, and we look forward to your Mastermind topic of Printing. Now go lie down, you’ve earned it.

Matthew Bird+ is “Printer Man” at, and writes the helpful articles you all love. When not writing about printers, he is dreaming about printers, and he is happy that way.

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  1. Evans M. Chanzu says:

    With the current technology in printing, what is the future of impact printing mechanism in the next century?

  2. Louise Guy says:

    Really, really useful article. I had found other articles about early European printing but I did need to be able to compare this with music printing in the 1960s and your article does the trick. Thank you.

  3. Barry Z says:

    When did GLOSSY print come into use?? IE: A shiny typeface ink printed on boxes or paper??

  4. Sam says:


  5. Olga Wise Austin, Texas USA says:

    Working on a short class on the history of books and libraries. Enjoyed your article. Just wished for more info. on the composition of the ink for early Anglo Saxon manuscripts as well as incunabulae.