The History of Printer Ink

by Rich on February 5, 2009

Ink itself is much older than the printing process. The earliest known use of ink occurred about 5,000 years ago in China, although this date is disputed—it’s possible ink was in use much earlier than this. Before this time, scribes in many cultures generally wrote by pressing stamps carved with symbols into wet clay. But for thousands of years, nobody thought to put stamps and ink together.

Most people think of the Gutenberg printing press as the first occurrence of printing, but the Chinese had us beat there, too. The Chinese began printing from negative reliefs as early as 600 AD. The technology spread along trade routes, and Europeans knew about it by 1400.

Like many inventions, the Gutenberg printing press couldn’t have happened without the inventor’s knowledge of Chinese printing practices, as well as wine production techniques. Johan Gutenberg created the first movable type printing press from an adapted wine press, smearing ink all over individual letter stamps arranged as entire words. Before this invention, books in Europe were rare and extremely costly—even copies had to be written by hand, which was time consuming and required specialized skills and materials. The printing press changed all that—and only half a century later, over eight million books were in circulation.

Gutenberg may have invented the movable-type printing press in 1464, but the real breakthrough didn’t come until 1460. That’s when innovations in printer ink led to a hardier ink in a linseed-oil medium, able to stick effectively to metal typefaces and dry quickly once it was laid. Not all the ingredients of the world’s first printer ink are known, but it’s theorized that lead monoxide and plant-based pigments may have been used.

For centuries afterward, linseed and vegetable oils were the main solvent used for printer inks. In the 19th century, however, this changed with the advent of assembly line newspaper presses that needed inks that would hold up to a more vigorous production process, with more viscosity and an even faster drying time. This was the first time inks were made with petroleum distillate—an additive that made inks much less environmentally friendly.

The first commercially successful automatic writing machines—typewriters—were developed in the 1870’s. Several inventors developed typewriters that allowed users to depress keys, which would then press a letter mold against an ink ribbon to imprint the letter on the page. These ink ribbons were the precursors to ink cartridges, and the same technology was used as late as the 1980’s in early electronic printers.

In 1938, the first laser copier was developed using newly-invented electrophotography or “dry writing” technology. With this technology, toner is applied to a light-sensitive “print drum.” Then static electricity transfers the toner to the page and fuses it there using heat and pressure. The first copier cost about $20,000. It was produced by a company called Xerox.

But that was nothing compared with the cost of the first computer printer, developed by Remington-Rand to go with the first UNIVAC computers in 1953. That printer cost a cool $1 million in today’s American dollars, and was about the size of a one-car garage. It worked in a similar way to a typewriter, with a long print ribbon.

Meanwhile, research was continuing on dry writing technology, and in 1978, the first Xerox printer was introduced to the general public. It printed approximately 120 pages per minute—still a respectable speed compared with today’s printers—but wasn’t widely adopted by personal users, because of its size and its price tag.

Dot matrix printing was being developed during this time as well. Centronix Data Corporation made significant progress in this area, releasing their first models around the same time Xerox released theirs. Epson developed more commercially successful models which were sold along with IBM computers. Canon developed “Bubble Jet” technology around this time as well—and this technology led to further innovations in Inkjet printing.

Today, laser and inkjet printers are the two competing technologies in printing. Developed around the same time, both represent centuries of innovation in printing and ink technology. Whether you use inkjet printers or swear by your laser printer, one thing’s for sure—the cost of your cartridges is probably more than it has to be. Changes in ink and toner cartridge price are the next innovations consumers are looking for.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bill May 8, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Really interesting. So are laser toner cartridges more economical than ink cartridges?

2 Lucius Dellaporta February 13, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Great information. I’m researching laser printers for my small office.

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