February 26

Alois Senefelder

In the city of Munich, Germany on February 26, 1834 there died in moderate circumstances in his sixty-third year, a former actor-dramatist named Alois Senefelder, the inventor of the printing process called lithography.

The son of an actor of the Theatre Royal in Munich, Senefelder was sent to the university of Ingolstadt to study jurisprudence, but the death of his father left him with insufficient capital to complete his studies. The young man thereupon became an actor himself and also began the production of several plays, one of which was honored with a performance and was issued in printed form. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish himself as a dramatist, he decided instead to become an author.

He soon learned that he would have to publish his books himself, so he secured the services of a printer for this purpose. This individual was so high-priced that Senefelder quickly found himself in financial straits and decided to do his own printing. Lack of funds prompted him to make his own type. When he found that this was impractical he experimented with copperplate engraving. Again he was discouraged by the high cost of the copper plates. Not to be daunted, he next tried to letter on a slab of stone which he had bought as a surface for mixing ink, with the basic idea of utilizing it merely to practice his lettering. He quickly learned that the limestone was easier to work with than copper. There then occurred the historic accident which led directly to the discovery of lithography. Senefelder later described it:

“I had just succeeded in my little laboratory in polishing a stone plate, which I intended to cover with etching ground, in order to continue my exercises in writing backwards, when my mother entered the room, and desired me to write her a bill for the washerwoman, who was waiting for the linen. I happened not to have the smallest slip of paper at hand; nor was there a drop of ink in the inkstand. As the matter would not admit delay, and we had nobody in the house to send for a supply of the deficient materials, I resolved to write the list with my ink, prepared with wax, soap, and lamp black, on the stone which I had just polished, and from which I could copy it at leisure. Some time after this I was just going to wipe this writing from the stone, when the idea all at once struck me to try what would be the effect of such writing with my prepared ink, if I were to bite in the stone with aquafortis and whether, perhaps, it might not be possible to apply printing ink to it the same way as wood engravings, and so take impressions from it. I hastened to put this idea in execution, surrounded the stone with a border of wax, and covered the surface of the stone to a height of two inches, with a mixture of one part of aquafortis and ten parts of water, which I left standing five minutes on it; and on examining the effect of this experiment, I found the writing elevated about the tenth part of a line, or a hundred and twentieth part of an inch. . . .”

Thus, in the year 1796, was a new printing craft born.

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