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Think ink!

It's easy to take making your mark for granted, but it took thousands of years of trial and error to make it possible to sign on the dotted line.

By Sharon J. Huntington / September 21, 2004

If you think ink is no big deal, think about this: How would you like to carry a backpack full of stone books to school every day? Before ink was invented, people wrote pretty "heavy" messages to each other. They carved pictures and letters into stone or pressed them into wet clay.

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The earliest known writing consists of drawings carved into cave walls. These showed important events such as a hunting trip or planting season. Then, thousands of years ago, the Greeks began to use a writing stylus, made of bone, metal, or ivory, to scratch marks into tablets coated with wax. Writing was still a lot of work, but at least you could move it from place to place, which you couldn't do with cave walls.

About 5,000 years ago, the Chinese began using ink for writing. The ink was a mixture of soot from pine smoke and lamp oil, thickened with gelatin from animal skins and musk. It was first used for blacking the raised surfaces of pictures or letters carved into stone. Later it was used to form the letters themselves, without carving them in stone first. A Chinese philosopher, Tien-Lcheu, who lived around 2700 BC, developed a form of ink that was in common use by 1200 BC.

Other cultures developed inks from berries, plants, and minerals available in their areas. These inks were different colors, which could indicate different meanings. In ancient Egypt, red ink was used for people's titles and to write the names of the gods.

As inks improved, paper was developed and improved. Early Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews soon were using paper made from the papyrus plant and parchment made from animal skins. The earliest known papyrus writing is the Egyptian "Prisse Papyrus," which dates back to 2000 BC.

Ink consists of a colorant and a liquid or paste to carry the color and bind it to the paper. Crushed berries make a lasting color, as do bark and certain plants. Some minerals can be ground to powder for color. Carbon from soot makes a deep black ink.

A centuries-old recipe for ink

Around AD 300 the Chinese developed a solid ink that could be stored as a stick or cake. When you wanted to do some writing, you shaved some ink off the stick and mixed it with water. This type of ink is still used today through East Asia. In the United States, these sticks are often called Chinese ink or Japanese ink. Black ink made from carbon is often called India ink in the US, even though it was developed in China.

About 1,600 years ago, a popular ink recipe was created. The recipe was used for centuries. Iron "salts," such as ferrous sulfate (made by treating iron with sulfuric acid), was mixed with tannin from gallnuts (they grow on trees) and a thickener. When first put to paper, this ink is bluish-black. Over time it fades to a dull brown.

Scribes in medieval Europe (about AD 800 to 1500) wrote on sheepskin parchment. One 12th-century ink recipe called for hawthorn branches to be cut in the spring and left to dry. Then the bark was pounded from the branches and soaked in water for eight days. The water was boiled until it thickened and turned black. Wine was added during boiling. The ink was poured into special bags and hung in the sun. Once dried, the mixture was mixed with wine and iron salt over a fire to make the final ink.