History of Printing Part 3 – Lithography

06-05-2016 by

Share this:

Last week we had a look at how the printing press changed the nature of communication forever and how it was the biggest innovation in printing. However, the next big invention in printing would not happen for another 300 years.

In part 3 of our history of printing, we take a look at lithography and its offshoots, chromolithography and offset lithography, and how they made the reproduction of images practical and worthwhile.

Reproducing images had always been time consuming, as an artist had to carve a mirror image of their work into woodblock or engrave or etch it onto metal plates. However, in 1798 the German playwright and actor Alois Senefelder invented lithography.

Senefelder had run into problems printing his new play and, having run out money for printing, was looking for an inexpensive way to reproduce the text of his play.

Detail of colour woodblock printing process

     Detail of colour woodblock printing process

Senefelder began experimenting with a new way of etching using a greasy, acid resistant ink as a resist on a smooth, fine-grained slab of Solnhofen Limestone. While experimenting with this, he discovered that he could print from the surface of the stone alone, without needing to etch away the white areas of the image.

Lithography is based on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. Using a greasy crayon, the artist will draw the image or text to be reproduced onto the stone block. Senefelder found that limestone worked best for holding the oily marks.

Alois Senefelder

Alois Senefelder

The block is then treated with a solution of gum Arabic and weak nitric acid to make sure that the area surrounding the image to be printed does not soak up ink. The block is then made wet with water. An oil-based ink (which is attracted to the oily drawing and repelled by the water) is rolled onto the surface of the block.

The printer then uses a press to firmly press a piece of paper onto the inked image and the image is transferred. This cheap and exact reproduction process allowed for reproducing finer details on printed pages and was especially useful in the creation of maps.

The land surveying offices in Europe realised the value of this as maps had been expensive and time consuming to create and soon Senefelder was appointed as the Inspector of a new institute that had been set up for this purpose. The Lithographische Anstalt (Lithographic Institute) was set up in Munich in 1809.

The lithographic process was used to create over 20 000 maps between 1809 and 1853, making exploration and cartography an affordable enterprise, with more and more people becoming acquainted with the world around them. With the rise of more accurate maps, shipping became safer and faster as navigation became more accurate.

Lithography was also widely used to recreate art and make it more widely available. During the mid-1800s, more and more artists adopted lithography as a way to make art and introduced the concept of limited print runs to preserve the value of their artworks.

Lithography stone ready for printing showing a view of Princeton University

Lithography stone ready for printing showing a view of Princeton University

Colour printing still presented a problem however. The process for creating coloured images was time consuming as it involved creating a plate or block for each element that was to be coloured. The main problem with trying to use this process with the lithographic process was making sure the images lined up correctly.

Senefelder wrote about his experiments with colour lithography in his 1819 book, but his efforts were not successful. He did predict that the process would eventually be perfected. Godefroy Englemann, a French printer, was granted a patent for his colour printing process called chromolithography in 1837.

Engelmann’s process was cheaper, faster and more accurate and he was able to produce beautifully coloured prints with a minimum of effort. With the introduction of cheaper paper and inks and the speed with which lithographs and chromolithographs could be produced, commercial colour printing for advertising became viable.

Chromolithography was also widely to reproduce images in children’s books, medical textbooks and the newly created magazines and serials of the age.

Chromolithographic process

Detail of the Chromolithographic process

In 1901 Ira Washington Rubel, a printer from New Jersey, would make a mistake that would lead to the rise of offset printing. During a print run, Rubel forgot to load a sheet of paper, causing the image he was printing to transfer to the rubber roller. He discovered that the prints from the rubber roller were clearer and of a higher quality than images printed from the metal roller.

This process was also faster as the rubber roller held the image for longer and could be used for longer print runs. The process became known as offset lithography and became the most widely used form of printing today. Everything from magazines to postage stamps are printed on offset printers.

offset litho rollers

Offset Lithography Rollers

With faster printing technology and more accurate image and colour printing, print advertising as we know it became commercially viable and the spread of information became more affordable. However, being able to print at home was far off.

Next week we take a look at the rise of modern printing, from Xerox’s first photocopy machine to the invention of the thermal inkjet printhead.

Nic Venter

About the author

Nic Venter+

 is the founder and director of He started the business in 2009 with the idea to sell ink and toner cartridges online and to provide you with a quality product, value for money and convenience. He regularly blogs on about printing and technology. Part of his philosophy is having fun and making sure that he and his team think everything ink, so you don't have to.

comments powered by Disqus
visa-logo mastercard-logo eft-logo

© Inksaver CC 2012
Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, Kyocera, Lexmark, Oki, Samsung, Xerox and other manufacturer brand names and logos are registered trademarks of their respective owners who have no association with or make any endorsement of the products or services provided by InkSaver.