Ink is a fluid or paste of various colours, but usually black or dark blue, used for writing and printing.
It is composed of a pigment or dye dissolved or dispersed in a liquid called the vehicle.
Many ancient cultures around the world have independently discovered and formulated inks for the purposes of writing and drawing. The knowledge of the inks, their recipes and the techniques for their production comes from archaeological analysis or from written text itself. The earliest inks from all civilizations are believed to have been made with lampblack, a kind of soot, as this would have been easily collected as a by-product of fire.
Ink was used in Ancient Egypt for writing and drawing on papyrus from at least the 26th century BC. Egyptian red and black inks included iron and ocher as a pigment, in addition to phosphate, sulfate, chloride, and carboxylate ions – meanwhile, lead was used as a drier.
Approximately 5,000 years ago, the Chinese developed ink for blackening the raised surfaces of pictures and texts carved in stone. This early ink was a mixture of soot from pine smoke, lamp oil, and gelatin from animal skins and musk. Other early cultures also developed inks (of many colors) from available berries, plants and minerals.
India ink was first invented in China, though materials were often traded from India, hence the name.
The reservoir pen, which may have been the first fountain pen, dates back to 953, when Ma’ād al-Mu’izz, the caliph of Egypt, demanded a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes, and was provided with a pen that held ink in a reservoir.
In the 15th century, a new type of ink had to be developed in Europe for the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. According to Martyn Lyons in his book Books: A Living History, Gutenberg’s dye was indelible, oil-based, and made from the soot of lamps (lamp-black) mixed with varnish and egg white. Two types of ink were prevalent at the time: the Greek and Roman writing ink (soot, glue, and water) and the 12th century variety composed of ferrous sulfate, gall, gum, and water. Neither of these handwriting inks could adhere to printing surfaces without creating blurs. Eventually an oily, varnish-like ink made of soot, turpentine, and walnut oil was created specifically for the printing press.
The arrival of the printing press made the written word far more widespread than ever before, and its use for printing bibles has been cited as a major influence of the Reformation, since more people could read the word of God themselves rather than rely on books owned only by religious leaders. But printing was still very much in the hands of an elite few. It wasn’t until the advent of the typewriter in the 1860s that the ability to print became viable for business communication, and this required yet another development in ink. The Hansen Writing Ball typewriter was invented in 1865 and went into mass production in 1870, followed by models from a number of other manufacturers. In most cases, typewriters relied on an ink-soaked ribbon of cloth. The pigmented ink was designed to stay moist on the ribbon through the addition of castor oil, but it would dry once it contacted paper. Later designs, in particular IBM’s Selectric typewriter, used ribbons of pigment-coated polymer tape. In both cases, the impact of the type transfers the ink to the paper.
In 1772 the first patent was issued in England for making coloured inks, and in the 19th century chemical drying agents appeared, making possible the use of a wide variety of pigments for coloured inks.
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.
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.’
Tattoo inks consist of pigments combined with a carrier, and are used in tattooing. Tattoo inks are available in a range of colors that can be thinned or mixed together to produce other colors and shades. Most professional tattoo artists purchase inks pre-made (known as pre-dispersed inks), while some tattooers mix their own using a dry pigment and a carrier.
In 2006, scientists at Harvard University develop an erasable tattoo ink. Though it won’t wash off in the shower, the ink’s structure makes it easier for lasers to remove tattoos. Erasable tattoo ink gains popularity among those who stencil their sweetheart’s name on their bicep, as the design is less regrettable after a breakup.