The process by which Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) invented lithography was by no means direct. His father, an actor, wanted Alois to go into the law, but after his father’s death he abandoned his studies to support the family. He took to playwriting, and determined to print his plays himself. Not owning a press, he decided to invent his own way of printing. He worked with copper plates, made sealing wax casts of conventional types, but couldn’t find success. Having almost exhausted his ingenuity and resources, he wondered if he might somehow print with the limestone slab he had been using to mix his inks. He was able firstly to print an intaglio impression by etching out lines in the surface of the stone using acids, filling the grooves with ink, and placing a sheet of paper over the ink. Then by chance he happened to notice that an inked page left on the stone would transfer the ink to the stone’s surface. He was able to etch away the background, leaving a raised image from which he could print.

He went to Munich hoping to sell such information as he had developed, and falling in with an old theatrical acquaintance, Franz Gleißner, talked him into setting up a print shop to print music on stones. Playing around with the transfer of music inked onto paper, Senefelder noticed one day that when he dipped the sheet into water the oily ink appeared to float on the surface. He was able to recognize in this the germ of a new printing method. “Tearing a page out of an old printed book, he soaked it in a solution of gum arabic — a known oleophobic, or oil-repelling, substance — and waited impatiently for the paper to dry.”* When he put the paper, dabbed with a solution of printer’s ink, onto the stone he found the image transferred to the stone and was able to print a few impressions. When he drew directly onto the stone with a wax crayon he could however make unlimited impressions. He’d got it! Spread the gum arabic solution onto the stone after an inky image had been established, then ink the stone, and almost magically you could print.

Gutenberg was edged out of the letterpress print shop he founded, and had to sell rights to his innovation. Senefelder, however, was diligent in keeping control over his invention. In 1799 he was granted an exclusive license to carry out “chemical printing” in Bavaria. Next year he patented the process in London. By 1818 he had secured rights to “stone printing” across Europe, and published his Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindrückerei, which is still in print as A Complete Course of Lithography.

As may be seen from this brief video, which shows the basics of Senefelder’s process, the ink and water balance needs to be worked up as ink is worked up on the stone. This is the equivalent of the makeready process on a modern offset press. (If you don’t see the video here, click on the title of this post to view it in your browser.)

Commercial offset lithography took over a century to evolve, but one early book printed by  stone lithography was the 1840-4 reissue of Audubon’s The Birds of America.

This 1874 chromolithograph by Louis Prang of Boston depicts a print shop in which, on the left, the stone is being sanded by rubbing one stone on top of another in preparation for the drawing of the image onto a prepared stone in the center, while on the right a worker is proofing the job. In the background the pressman is printing the final job.  One of the uses Prang made of chromolithography was, from Christmas 1873 onwards, to print greeting cards.


* Much of the information here presented comes from Keith Houston’s invaluable The Book. This extract is from p. 223)