A History of Ink in Six Objects

From cave paintings to Kindle, our history is written in ink – adapted and reinvented to reflect, and influence, the needs of the day.

Lydia Pyne | Published in 16 May 2018

History is full of ink. From Paleolithic cave paintings to parchment scrolls to printed books, ink has recorded human history for over 100 millennia. Even the Kindle makes use of e-ink (a reusable ink that sits just below the surface of the screen), reminding its readers that ink is hardly a thing of the past. All inks are a means and method of communication – the first and longest-running form of information technology. 

Although historically ubiquitous and seemingly omnipresent, ink is anything but simple. Ever since the Pleistocene, inks of all types have been invented and reinvented, with every ink a product of its own unique context. On a basic material level, inks consist of two components: colour and a way for that colour to attach itself to its intended surface, be it papyrus, parchment or paper. But the way that those elements combine, and the ingredients used to make them, offer a variety of permutations, proving ink to be one of the most curious and complex objects in human history. 

Consequently, inks are inexorably bound to their times, geographies and utilities as every type of ink is the result of decisions about purpose, cost, usability and accessibility. Neolithic Chinese ink had different cultural requirements from medieval manuscript ink; printing ink is most certainly different from that found in modern fountain pens. Ritually made ink is culturally sanctioned, whereas other modern inks are intentionally disposable. The value of each ink is seen in the sum of the choices about how it is made and why.

Maya Blue

Detail of the 16th-century Florentine Codex, showing a lunar eclipse. Arizona State University Hispanic Research Center.

Maya Blue is a vibrant, sky-coloured azure found on ceramics, buildings and written records across the ancient landscape of Mesoamerica. First created around AD 300, Maya Blue melts together indigo from the local añil plant and the clay mineral palygorskite to form an ink that has endured in the archaeological record for centuries. The ink was ritually made by heating the palygorskite and indigo together in incense burners. More than just something to write with, however, it was a critically important part of ancient Maya religion and ritual as it symbolised the rain god, Chaak, as well as being associated with other deities.

The Maya occupied Mesoamerica from 4,500 years ago until the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Mexico. Although their writing appears on ceramics and architecture, codices were the main form of written history for the Maya – folding books with continuous accordion-like pages. These codices were written by religious scribes in a plethora of different inks, including Maya Blue.

Page from the Grolier Codex (without Maya Blue), showing the Death God decapitating a Roman-nosed god.

Recently, Maya Blue has been a key piece of evidence in evaluating the authenticity of one of only four Maya codices to survive into the 21st century, the Grolier Codex. For decades after its discovery, the Grolier was considered a fake, based largely on the simple improbability of any new Maya codex being discovered. (Its sketchy provenance didn’t help; it was purportedly purchased by an antiquities dealer ten years before it was ever shown publically.) In 2007, however, a detailed chemical analysis of the pigments found in the Grolier matched elements to the Maya Blue found in other codices and artifacts. Although the Grolier contains very little visible blue, these findings, along with other pre-Hispanic materials found in its inks, authenticated the codex. 

As Maya Blue retains its brilliancy for centuries, few other Mesoamerican inks have offered archaeologists and art historians as much insight into the lives of the Maya.

Chinese Ink

'Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River', by Mi Fu, c.1095.

For 5,000 years, artists and writers across Asia have used a glossy, dark black, durable carbon-based ink, first recorded in China’s Neolithic, which is known colloquially as Chinese ink. (Chinese ink is also known as India ink and remains extremely popular for contemporary artists and writers.) Chinese ink has been used from China to Korea to India to South-east Asia, on Buddhist and Jainian scrolls as well as in traditional Chinese calligraphy. Conventional Chinese ink, unlike many other inks throughout history, was made to be stored in a solid form, only to be liquefied into ink when needed.

Chinese ink is traditionally comprised of animal glue, carbon black and water. The carbon pigment came from soot or another dark mineral like graphite, most of which was obtained from burning oils, bones or woods like pine. Egg whites or glues made from fish or ox functioned as the binding agents. Some traditional manufacturers of Chinese ink added incenses and other elements to their ink recipes and a variety of other pigments offered more colours to artists than the traditional black. The glue and pigment were moulded together and left to dry into a hardened rock-like, easily transportable inkstick that could be re-liquefied when needed. Ink was made by grinding off a fine dust from the stick and adding water. The maker could control the viscosity and thickness with each batch, allowing every stroke of ink to reflect intent or to convey a particular cultural cachet. 

In traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting, the inkstick – along with the inkstone for grinding, a brush and paper – were the classic tools of the trade. The 11th-century poem ‘Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River’, by the Chinese artist, poet and calligrapher Mi Fu, offers a particularly artistic reading of the ink, where the calligraphied characters take on aesthetic value beyond their simple drawing. 

Iron Gall Ink
Iron gall ink corrosion on a manuscript from the Church of St Francis, Évora, Portugal.

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, iron gall ink was one of the most frequently made and used inks in Europe – so much so that it was often referred to as ‘common ink’. It was made in batches by hand until the 18th century, when it was produced on a commercial scale. The ubiquitous rusty browns (and paper damage) of manuscripts written in iron gall ink make it one of the most recognisable inks in the world.

At its most basic recipe – the earliest of which is found in Pliny – iron gall ink is comprised of four components: gall nuts, iron sulfate, water and gum arabic. Gall nuts form on oak trees as a defense against the irritant of hatching insects and are the source for the ink’s tannins – biomolecules used for tanning leather and dyeing textiles. The iron sulfate came directly from iron mining or was acquired as a by-product of alum manufacturing. The gum arabic served as the binding agent, making the ink more viscous, ensuring the pigment particles stayed properly suspended in the water, as well as binding the ink to its intended writing surface. Some iron gall recipes call for additional ingredients, like sugar or honey (plasticising agents), pomegranate rinds as another source of tannins, dyes or pigments to enhance colour and preservatives like alcohol or vinegar to prolong the ink’s shelf life.

The Book of Kells (the four Gospels of the New Testament) is upheld as one of the finest manuscripts produced in early medieval Britain. It was written in Ireland (and, possibly, Scotland) on 340 parchment leaves around AD 800. The neat biblical verses were penned in iron gall ink, with the distinctive rusty hue as a clear indication of the ink used, although many other ink colours are found in the book’s text. 

While historically pervasive, iron gall ink is also inherently corrosive. Once put to paper, parchment or vellum it bites into and eats away at the surfaces – anything that the ink recorded is slowly eroding its own page away. The permanence of iron gall ink to the historical record is undercut by the ink’s very chemistry. 

Printing Ink

The opening of Genesis in a Gutenberg Bible (Library of Congress).
When Johannes Gutenberg introduced mass printing to Europe in the 1440s, the technological breakthrough was more than just a metal, moveable type press. A new kind of ink had to be developed, too. 

In the centuries prior to Gutenberg’s press, books and codices written out in longhand used water-based inks. (Korean printing presses, predating Gutenberg’s by a century or two, used the water-based Chinese ink in their woodblock presses.) Water-based inks are well-suited for writing on parchment or vellum (or even printing with wooden blocks), but they simply oozed off the metal of Gutenberg’s moveable typeface. Consequently, the new metal presses would require an ink with a different base to give the liquid a viscous, thick consistency that would stick to the typeface. Gutenberg developed an oil-based alternative using oils similar to those used by contemporary painters, giving the ink more in common with a varnish or a paint than with the water-based inks used by scribes. In 1455, Gutenberg completed printing approximately 180 copies of the Bible. 

The smooth, even black ink associated with Gutenberg’s Bibles contains carbon, with small reflective grains of graphite, as well as high levels of copper, lead, titanium and sulfur, giving the ink a reflective sheen as well as an intense, even colour. In some early printed versions, Gutenberg experimented with the idea of printing in more than just one colour and trying to use red for the beginning and ending of certain verses. Ultimately, however, the polychrome printing was abandoned in favour of the efficiency that printing in just black afforded.

The story of Gutenberg’s press and its importance for the production and distribution of books across Europe for the subsequent centuries would be incomplete without its ink.

Inkjet Ink

Inkjet cartridges, by Kenny Louie (2009).
In 1968, the Japanese company Epson built the first electronic printer; 16 years later, Hewlett Packard released the first laser jet. By the late 1990s, inkjet printing was inexpensive enough to be ubiquitous in personal computing. Such pervasiveness, however, has come at a steep social price as inkjet ink does not last well – it fades quickly – and it has become synonymous with corporate price-gouging.

Inkjet printing propels drops of ink onto a surface by continuously pumping ink from a reservoir through a very small nozzle. The inkwell reservoir comes in the form of a cartridge and most inkjet printers are outfitted with four ink reservoirs in total – cyan, magenta, yellow and black. These can be combined to offer as many ink shades as required. The inks are water-based (rather than oil) with colour created from pigments and dyes and bound in their suspension with glycol. Many inkjet printers use a heat source in the ink reservoir to generate an ideal temperature for the ink’s viscosity and have a microchip in the cartridge to let a consumer know when the ink is running low. 

Ink for inkjet printers is inexpensive to manufacture, but does not come cheaply to consumers. The United States Consumer Reports estimate that inkjet ink is priced anywhere from $13 to $75/oz, putting the current cost of a gallon of inkjet ink at $8,000 per gallon. A 2007 class-action lawsuit against Hewlett-Packard claimed that customers were told that the ink in the cartridges was running low long before it actually was, thus ‘encouraging’ consumers to buy ink at a faster rate than necessary.

Voting Ink

A voter shows his stained finger during the Iraqi election of 2005.
Indelible ink leaves a stain on the nails and cuticles of more than a billion voters and has ever since its invention in the 1960s. Since its invention, this ink has communicated a single social act – namely, ‘I voted.’

Indelible voting ink was invented in 1962 by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory in Delhi, just before the third election in a newly independent India to help combat voter fraud. The ink is made with silver nitrate, an inorganic compound commonly used in early photography; it is soluble in water, allowing the silver nitrate to bond with the liquid component of the ink. Once applied, the silver nitrate reacts with salt present in human skin, forming silver chloride, a compound that cannot be removed with any sort of soap or chemical. To this is added pigment – generally violet, black or orange, as was the case of Suriname’s 2005 election. Once the indelible ink is applied to voters’ skin, the pigment will hold fast until the inked skin cells die and slough off – anywhere from a couple of days to up to three weeks. 

India has only one authorised manufacturer of voting ink – Mysore Paints and Varnish Limited – and the company has been responsible for making and distributing election ink in India for decades. In 2004, Afghanistan used pens filled with Mysore’s ink to mark voters’ hands during the election. Unfortunately, the ink was not as permanent as election officials had hoped. (In an interview with the BBC, Mysore Paints and Varnish Limited claimed that Afghan election officials used the incorrect pens for the election.) Subsequent Afghan elections using indelible ink have been slightly less contested and indelible ink continues to stand as a simple but effective means of voter verification.

From India to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Ghana, voters’ ink-stained fingers have become a cultural shorthand and symbol of fraud-free, democratic elections.

Lydia Pyne is a writer and historian, specialising in the history of science and material culture.