History is full of ink. From Paleolithic cave paintings to parchment scrolls to printed books, ink has recorded human history for 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. Ink has its origins around 4500 years ago, and was invented by both the Egyptians and the Chinese around the same time. 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 2 components: 1 – The Pigment (colour) and 2 – The Carrier -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.
The pigment – is the dye itself, and is what is delivered by the vessel to the paper or printing medium. Ink is typically colored, but the very first inks used charcoal or soot from the fire as the main pigment, hence why most of the early written works found were written in black ink. Charcoal was also a relatively inexpensive and easy to find pigment, whereas pigments for other colors were quite rare.
The carrier (or vessel) – is what the pigment is blended with in order to transfer it to the medium. While this solution has to be some sort of liquid, oil-based vessels work better for binding the pigment to the medium. Today this is usually some sort of vegetable based oil, but in the initial days of ink creation, the vessel was often some sort of animal fat.
As technology developed, different pigments (chemical based as opposed to naturally occurring) began to be used, as well as petroleum/chemical based carriers. These chemical ink combinations gained popularity in the early 1900s as the quick drying properties of petroleum based inks enabled newspapers to be printed and dried much faster than with non-petroleum ink carriers. In the 1970s, with the oil crisis, printers began looking for alternatives as petroleum prices sky-rocketed. Thus enters the popularity of soy-based and other vegetable-based inks.
A biro is the essence of pen-ness: it doesn’t have the social status of the fountain pen, nor the sophistication of a fibre pen, but it works on most paper and does the job you need it to do. It rarely leaks and ruins your clothes, and it can lie unattended at the bottom of your bag for months and still work the first time you try to use it. It does all that, and still costs so little that it’s routinely given away without thought. Indeed most people regards ballpoint pens as common property: if you give someone a biro to sign a form and they forget to give it back to you, you wouldn’t brand them a thief; you probably wouldn’t even remember where you got the pen in the first place – it’s quite likely you took it from someone else. But if you think what makes ballpoint pens so successful is their simplicity, you’re wrong. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Obviously, what you need in a pen is ink. Ink is a liquid designed to do 2 things:
1st – to flow on to the page, and 2nd – then to turn into a solid.
Flowing is not difficult; it’s what liquids do. And turning into a solid is something they generally do too. But doing both in the right order, reliably and in a pretty fast timeframe, so the ink doesn’t smudge and become unreadable, is much trickier than it looks.
Historians believe that the ancient Egyptians were the first people to use a pen, around 3000 B.C. They used reed pens, usually made of bamboo or another reedy plant with stiff, hollow shoots. By drying the shoot and shaping its end with a cutting tool, creating a fine tip, they made a good vehicle for ink. The shoots had to be just the right size for the pen to work, though; if the diameter of the tube was narrow enough, the surface tension between the ink and the reed surface would slow the force of gravity, and hold a small quantity of ink in place. Once the reed came in contact with the papyrus, which the Egyptians used as paper, the ink would be sucked on the papyrus fibres through capillary action – the same force responsible for wicking in candles and oil lamps. As the dry fibres absorbed the water in the ink, the pigments would stick to the surface, and once the water evaporated completely, the ink marks would hold on to the papyrus permanently.
The Egyptians made black ink by combining soot from oil lamps with the gum from the acacia tree, which acted as a binder. Like the resin that glued together their plywood, the Egyptians used acacia tree gum as a glue to bond the black carbon of the soot to the papyrus fibres. And because carbon is hydrophobic, so doesn’t mix with water, the acacia gum also allowed the carbon to be incorporated into water, creating a smooth, black, free-flowing ink. Gum Arabic, as it’s called, is still used today; you can buy it in most art shops. The protein in the gum allow it to bind to many different pigments and hence it can be used to make all kinds of colouring agents – watercolors, dyes and inks, to name a few. But the Egyptians used carbon and that, as it turns out, was a good choice. Carbon based ink is easy to make and very unreactive, which is why we have Egyptian document going back thousands of years, preserved for us by the chemical permanence of carbon black ink.
Job done, you might think. But carbon ink is not perfect. It wouldn’t be good for filling in custom forms, for instance, because, being water-based, it doesn’t dry fast and hence is easy to smudge. And when it does dry, the sooty pigment isn’t held strongly to the writing surface by the gum – so you can mechanically rub it away. Maybe you don’t care, but others did, and so began hundreds of years of experimentation in the hope of making something better.
Eventually, then found gall ink: the ink Christians used to write the Bible, the ink Muslims used to write the Koran, the ink Shakespeare used to write his plays, the ink all lawmaker used to write their Acts of Parliament.
Gall ink is so good that it was in common use right up to the 20th century. You make gall ink by putting an iron nail in a bottle with some vinegar; the vinegar corrodes the iron and leaves behind a red/brown solution, full of charged iron atoms. This is where the galls come in. Galls, also known as oak apples, are growths that sometimes turn up on oak trees. They’re created when wasps manipulate the molecular machinery of the oak bud to create food for their larvae. This is bad for the tree, but good for the literature because it produces oak galls, with their high concentration of tannins, which led to a revolutionary innovation in ink.
Tannins are widely found in the plant world; they’re part of the plant’s chemical defence system, and yet somehow we’ve developed a taste for them – you may recall, it’s the tannins in tea and red wine that give them their astringency. Tannins are colored molecules that are good at chemically bonding to proteins – and thus they are able to impart color through bonding to things made of proteins. They have traditionally been used to stain leather, which has a high percentage of the protein collagen – hence the origin of the word ‘tanning’ and the phrase ‘to tan’. They’re also big part of why red wine and tea can leave such bad stains on your clothes and teeth. So, their use in inks is perhaps not so surprising, ink being, essentially, an intentional stain. But it’s hard to create liquid with a high concentration of tannins – that’s where iron/ vinegar solution comes in. It reacts with the tannic acid from galls, and produces a substance called iron tannic acid from the galls, and produces a substance called iron tannate, which is highly water-soluble and very fluid.
When iron tannate comes in contact with paper fibres, it flows through capillary action into all small crevices in the paper, distributing itself evenly. And as the water evaporates, the tannates are deposited inside the paper, leaving a lasting blue/black mark. Its permanence is the great advantage it has over carbon inks: because the pigment isn’t stuck to surface of the paper, but rather within it, it can’t be removed by rubbing or washing. Of course, the very indelibility of gall ink was also one of its drawbacks for those who wrote with it. The biro pen doesn’t require to dip the pen nib into a reservoir of ink, therefore there is no ink coating the ouside of it. For most of the history of writing, this was emphatically not the case. Ink would get everywhere, especially in writers’ hands, and gall ink being very permanent, it did not come off easily – certainly not by washing with soap.
People complained and ironically some of these complains came to be written down using gall ink. By the 10th century, the Caliph of the Maghreb (now the region of north-west Africa encompassing Algeria, Libia, Morocco and Tunisia) had had enough; he demanded a solution from his engineers. In due course, in the year 974, he was presented with what is the first recorded instance of the fountain pen. This pen held its reservoir of ink within it and apparently did not leak, even when held upside down – I have to say, though that seems unlikely, not because the engineers of the time weren’t ingenious, but because the fountain pen got reinvented many times over the next thousand years, and it was only after many, many iterations that a reliable fountain pen mechanism was created, in the late 19th century. Leonardo da Vinci had a go in the 16th century and there’s some evidence that he was able to make a pen that wrote with continuous contrast, while quill pens, which were in common use at the time, tended to fade in and out. And there were certainly fountain pens around in the 17th century when Samuel Pepys mentioned them in his diary, content as he was at being able to carry around a pen without also needing to carry an ink pot. But those fountain pens weren’t perfect; he still preferred using a feather quill pen and, yes, gall ink. And here is the moment when the ballpoint pen was about to be invented. But for now I will stop here. In Part 2 of The Ink Story I will write more about how the ballpoint pens have transformed the entire writing art.