Today, let's get ink on our fingers. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The commonplace technologies
have so much to teach us. Take ink. When I was a
child, ink was a real presence in my life. Our
school desks all had inkwells. We dipped
steel-tipped pens into them. My fingers and my
books were always ink-stained. We understood about
Rorschach tests. We'd fold paper over a drop of ink
and make our own abstract figures, just for the fun
Nowadays, wet ink is out of sight. We preload inks
into ballpoint and felt-tipped pens. Ink enters our
homes on newsprint and magazines. Americans consume
over 100,000 gallons of ink each day on newspapers
alone. But we don't see the stuff.
We invented ink around 2500 BC -- some 500 years
after we began writing on wet clay. When you weigh
the problem of making ink, you come away with a new
respect for its anonymous inventor.
Most coloring agents don't mix well with water.
Lampblack was one of the first: it forms clumps and
balls when you try to stir it into water. Even if
you could find something that mixed with water,
it'd blow off the papyrus when the water dried
Some perceptive Egyptian realized that, if you add
gum from the bark of an acacia tree (what we call
gum arabic), you do two things. Gum arabic is
water-soluble, so it emulsifies the coloring agent.
It coats the particles -- changes their surface
chemistry and helps them disperse through the
liquid. It also binds the coloring agent to the
paper after the water dries out.
But gum arabic was hard to get in Europe. Good gum
arabic comes only from West African acacias. So by
the time Gutenberg showed us how to set type, we'd
learned to make printer's inks with varnishes and
linseed oil instead. Now we use chemicals like
glycol and certain acids. Some modern inks are very
unfriendly to paper.
That wasn't true of the old inks. Look at any very
old book, if you have a chance. We used to make
books from pure rag paper or parchment. We made
inks only from elementary plant products. A
500-year-old book lasts far better than a modern
So ink itself is as much a product of human
ingenuity as is the parade of ideas written in ink.
And when a Shakespearean character complains about
ignorance, he says,
He hath not drunk ink; his intellect is not
replenished; he is only an animal.
I write this text on a computer screen.
I pen it only in flickers of light on dark. I wonder
how much metaphorical power I sacrificed when I
stopped drinking ink -- when I no longer faced the
old danger of punctuating my half-formed thought with
a star-shaped blot on the clean white paper.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
My primary source for this episode was a special
lecture given by Pat Bozeman, Head of Special
Collections at the University of Houston Library, for
the course HIST 3395, The Flowering of the Middle
I've also made use of several entries in the
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Additional
information came from Don Piercy, Executive
Director of the Museum of Printing History,
Houston, and from the following book chapter:
Forbes, R.J., Chemical, Culinary and Cosmetic Arts.
A History of Technology, Vol. I
(Singer, C., Holmyard, E.J., and Hall, A.R., eds.)
New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, Chapter
The Shakespeare line is spoken by Sir Nathaniel in
Act IV, Scene II, of Love's Labour's
From the 1911 Encyclopaedia
Two typical kinds of natural oak galls used in
making medieval inks
Detail of the Gum Arabic producing Acacia tree
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.