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The History of Ink

The Evolution of Ink Through the Ages

Last week, we took a journey through the ages to learn about the history of printing. This week, we’re taking a look at the counterpart of the printing process to learn more about how ink derived and how it came to be used today.

Where It Began

The 21st-century consumer demands packaging. In fact, most of the ink used in society today is for the packaging of products and materials, but it wasn’t always that way. As the story goes, the first sign of ink was found through cave paintings as a way to depict the lives of ancient men, women, and animals. A lot of these paintings helped communicate daily messages before cave people spoke verbally. However, the first real recorded use of printing ink was found in China, roughly 23rd Century B.C. The Chinese made dyes using plants and animals that could be ground up into graphite which would then be applied to surfaces using paintbrushes. The second most commonly recorded use of ink was by the Indians in the 4th Century B.C. Instead of plants and animals, the Indians used burnt bone and tar to create the ink and then apply it to parchment with needles. This in turn would lay the groundwork for the first pen.

The Next Millennia of Ink

Not too long after the cavemen, Chinese, and Indians developed their methods of ink creation, the Romans came into play with a version of their own that would continue to be used for the next millennium. The Romans discovered that if you use a base of ground iron, mixed with the tannin from gallnuts, you could create longer-lasting ink than the previous options. This use of ink ran through all medieval times.

New Ink for the Printing Press

The printing press, also discussed in our last blog, was the first-ever printer that could be used to mass-produce newspapers and books. For this reason, the inventor John Gutenberg realized that he would need to create an ink suitable for volumes of printing that wouldn’t smudge. This is where oil-based ink came into play. Gutenberg found that when you combine turpentine, walnut oil, and soot with adhesive properties, you create an ink that doesn't require a long period of time to dry.

Sickness to Invention

The ink developed for the printing press lasted for centuries, with either sulfate-based for handwritten purposes or oil-based for printing purposes. However, people found that the only trouble with both was that it would fade over time. While William Henry Perkin, an English Chemist, was trying to find the cure to Malaria, he accidentally found the solution to the disappearing ink. Perkins is known for not curing malaria, but instead, as the first people to create synthetic ink which was more easily recreated.

The Ink of Today

In the early 19th Century, the ink we most commonly use today was invented. CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, key) inks are blended together to form ink sticks which can be applied to inkjet printers to create an array of colors including black. This concept, while not new, was actually invented with the intention of using different filters to create a color photograph and then took off in the 1970s until today, to be used in printers.


Have questions about different inks and how we used them? We have you covered! With over 30 years of printing, packaging, and labeling experience, our team is prepared to support you and guarantee you choose the right printing solution. To learn more, contact us today at (904) 263-2804 or sign up for a free consultation.


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