International Printing Museum

Lithography, Heliography & Photography

Part One

The Graphic Effect of the Industrial Revolution

The world was an exciting and engaging place during the Industrial Revolution. In the 18th and 19th centuries, both Europe and America witnessed the creation of some amazing inventions. During this time, Eli Whitney invented the modern cotton gin, Thomas Saint designed the sewing machine, and James Watt created the world’s first efficient steam engine.

These inventions led to the development of still others, several of which had an effect on the printing industry. The steam engine, for example, helped Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer to invent the first steam-powered rotary printing press. This press used a rotating cylinder rather than a flat surface, as Gutenberg designed.

This invention was not without controversy. Samuel Smiles, in his book Men of Invention and Industry, reported that the pressmen at the London Times, where the new press was located, heard rumors about the steam press and “vowed vengeance against the inventor and his invention, and that they had threatened destruct

ion to him and his traps.” Their trepidation was warranted due to the fact that this first “modern” newspaper press was five times the speed of what came before it.

Mr. J. Walter, proprietor of the newspaper, warned the pressmen against using any violence and offered to assist those whose jobs would be lost due to the new technology. This compromise led to the printing of the first newspaper on a steam-powered cylinder press during the early hours of November 29, 1814.

The Invention of Lithography

This domino effect of one invention leading to another can be found in the development of lithography.

Johann Alois Senefelder, the father of lithography, had a love for the theatre, but wasn’t a very good actor. He was, however, a very good playwright. Due to the high cost of printing, he found it hard to reproduce and disseminate his plays. So, he began looking for a less costly method of copying of his work.

One day, Senefelder was in his workshop experimenting with copper plates and other materials that could be used as a printing plate. His mother called to him because she needed pen and paper to record the clothing items that she was sending out to the laundry. Rather than look for pen and paper, he hastily reached for a block of limestone he had just prepared for one of his printing experiments. Using what was, in essence, a grease pencil, Senefelder wrote the list on the limestone intending to copy it later onto a sheet paper.

However, when Senefelder went to clean the laundry list off of the limestone, he discovered that the greasy writing on the limestone surface naturally repelled the water he was attempting to use to erase the writing. Though the surface of the stone was wet, the writing remained dry. When he applied oily printer’s ink to the wet stone it resulted in the reverse affect: the greasy writing accepted the oily ink while the wet limestone surface repelled it.

Senefelder continued experimenting with this chemical principle of oil repelling water and vice versa. By 1798, Senefelder had formally invented a new printing process, one that was completely different from both the raised letters and images invented by Gutenberg known as letterpress, and engraving, where the image is carved or scratched into a flat metal plate. He named his new process lithography, from the Greek “lithos,” meaning stone, and “graphein,” meaning to write. His invention of lithography allowed artists to draw their original artwork on a limestone surface with a grease crayon and then economically print multiple copies. Lithography quickly spread across Europe and into America.

Publishers of Cheap & Popular Prints

Two Americans who took full advantage of the new printing process were Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives. Their very successful printmaking firm was based in New York City.

The firm described itself as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints.” Currier and Ives published over 7,500 original lithographs between the years of 1835 and 1907.

Currier & Ives employed or used the work of many celebrated artists of the day to produce the original drawings. This included artists like Frances “Fanny” Flora Bond Palmer, who liked to do picturesque panoramas of the American landscape

The lithographs were produced on lithographic limestone printing plates. A stone often took over a week to prepare for printing. Each print was pulled by hand. Prints were then hand-colored by a dozen or more women. They worked in assembly-line fashion, one color to a worker, and were paid $6 for every 100 colored prints. These artists produced more than a million prints by hand-colored lithography.

Currier and Ives were the most prolific and successful lithographers in the U.S. Their work, representing every phase of American life, was among the most popular wall hangings of the Victorian Era.

Lithography in Europe

Because Lithography was an easy medium for artists to use the process became popular throughout the world. Many famous artists in Europe who used stone lithography includes Francisco de Goya, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Gauguin.

One European, a Frenchman named Nicéphore Niépce, was particularly interested in lithography. It was his interest that led to the development of another revolutionary invention of the era: photography.

Coming Soon, Part 2 of this series on Lithography, Heliography, and Photography…

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