Spoken words fly away, written words remain – the secret history of ink

Nowadays, using ink in our pens and printers seems like the most natural thing in the world. However, this seemingly simple “tool” has undergone enormous progress in the last four to five thousand years. In the meantime, the future of ink is just as exciting as its past.

While several ancient cultures used writing instruments and some liquid to record writing, the ancestor of today’s ink is Chinese black ink. According to old records, lampblack was successfully made from pine soot and sesame oil already five thousand years ago. The ingredients were then cooked with glue extracted from bovine skin and then scented with camphor and other materials. Finally, they were pressed into a wooden mould where they were formed into sticks or round cakes and dried between paper sheets or leaves.

Chinese black ink was not sold in liquid form, but as it is described above, in dried solid form and we also know that it was expensive due to this relatively complex process. Just as painters did with various paints, calligraphists diluted the ink with water and rubbed it with their own hands before using it. Strictly speaking, it was not used for writing as Chinese ink was applied with a fine brush instead of a pen. It is also important to add that as Chinese ink penetrates the drawing medium, there was no need to use a fixing material.

Each ancient culture had their own type of writing liquid developed. People in Egypt used soot and tar to produce an ink like liquid while the Romans made a brownish black squid liquid from the secretion of squids found in the Mediterranean.

The triumph of iron gall ink

Medieval scribes first used Chinese ink to copy manuscripts, however, the month-long journeys by sea or land made its import very costly. This all changed in the 11th century when, according to records, a monk called Theophilus discovered that gall wasps produce different sizes of galls on the leaves of oak trees, which are particularly rich in tannins. This discovery was only the first step leading to the European ink production as this tannic acid had to be extracted, which required a prolonged process of technology optimisation.

Old ink with feather

With time, it was realised that the way to extract the precious material was by pulverizing the galls, which later became the raw material for iron gall ink. This ink was later perfected for long centuries as the eventual inventors had to overcome a variety of technical problems and manufacturing ambiguities. One of the fundamental problems was that some of the constituents of the liquid used at the time dissolved the manuscript pages over time, which contradicted the saying that “spoken words fly away, written words remain.”

After a long period of development, this all led to the point when Europeans were able to manage without the hard-to-obtain Chinese ink, they organised the production and converted to a system of self-supply. The science of ink chemistry was further developed by Robert Boyle, an Anglo-Irish scientist in the 17th century and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a German Swedish chemist and pharmacist in the 18th century. However, the realisation that the iron gall ink originating from the Middle Ages was already almost perfect did not happen until much later. For example, the French revolutionary government commissioned several scientists to develop an everlasting ink in order to preserve their actions for future generations.

“However, their efforts had few practical results and the secrets of ink were not revealed. People all across Europe wrote for nearly a century using the more or less perfect iron gall ink made based on the Medieval specifications”

- István Finály writes in his principal study summarising the history of ink.

In the 19th century, an ink manufacturer from Dresden, August Leonhardi created the so-called Alizarine ink, which had favourable properties and was particularly innovative in terms of technology at the time, helping its creator to earn a great wealth from the products of its chemical plant.

At this point, there was only one step left before the galls were no longer used and tar paints were developed in the 20th century. This, at the same time, meant that ink production was no longer limited to the brownish black colour from tannic acid and iron and the dark blue colour of Alizarin, in other words, inks of almost all colours could be manufactured from this time.

The colorful Etelburg r.inks

The future of ink production

The short first part of this article is a mere summary briefly describing the history of ink, about which whole books could be written. However, it would be wrong to assume that ink stopped developing in the 21st century. It is enough to note that the black paint used in printers these days is made from soot whose production is everything but environmentally friendly. There is a startup that has recognised that problem and is making attempts to reform this industry by inventing new processes to reduce the environmental harm.

The project Etelburg is working on to develop inks for writing instruments is similarly exciting. It is focused around r.pro, an extremely easy-to-use device, which is able to mix any colour even in a home environment in less than one minute.

This modern design desktop device features an ink mixer, five ink containers, a seven-inch touch screen and a mobile phone application. By entering data in the control panel, any colour can be mixed and immediately used in r.feather pens. The five ink containers include the CMYK colours and a transparent liquid to supply colour depth. One colour is mixed in only 45 seconds. However, this is not the only development of the family business in this area as the ink is entirely unique too.

Etelburg r.pro desktop device

“In the development phase, we worked on 54 versions in total and we selected the last but one ink as the perfect one for us, which was later named r.ink. The important properties we focused on during testing were viscosity, volatility and other drying and evaporation aspects, pigment size and density as well. The end product is an ink with all the ideal properties, a water based ink, which can be mixed or ordered in any custom colour”

- says Gábor Megyeri, Etelburg’s co-founder and designer. The colour components of the custom-developed ink mix perfectly offering broad-spectrum “live” colours.


Finály István: Tus, tinta, ceruza. Természettudomány III. évfolyam 9-10. szám, 1948. szeptember-október. A Magyar Természettudományi Társulat közlönye.

Hajnal István: Írásoktatás a középkori egyetemeken. Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest, 2008. A fordítás alapjául szolgáló mű István Hajnal: L'enseignement de l'écriture aux universités médiévales. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1959. (Első kiadás: 1954.)

Schopen, Armin: Tinten und Tuschen des arabisch islamischen Mittelalters: Documentation - Analyse - Rekonstruction. - Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2006.