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The Development of Lithography

( Originally Published 1930 )

Lithography is the art of putting writing or designs on stone with a greasy material, and of printing impressions of the writing or the designs on paper or any other substance. The lithographers of today use almost entirely zinc or aluminum plates instead of stone upon which to make the designs and to put the writing. The art of lithography was invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder, who lived in Munich, Germany, at that time.

Senefelder was a poor young man who experimented with methods of printing because he did not have enough money to pay for the publishing of several plays which he had written. Several different processes were tried by him, among them being the etching of copper plates; but they had to be given up either because the materials were lacking, or the cost was too high, or because the particular experiment was a failure. One day Senefelder secured a piece of limestone on which he was planning to mix his colors. It occurred to him then that he might practice reverse writing on this polished stone, but he soon found that he could not use the ink which was made for writing on copperplate. So he had to invent an ink with which he could write on polished limestone. However, it was not so easy to etch on stone as on copper because difficulties arose when he tried to wash away all the ink from the unetched parts. It seemed that further experiments along this line would be checked as the result of this trouble.

An accidental discovery, however, led to the invention of lithography. One day Senefelder's mother asked him to write a laundry list for her. Since there was no paper in the house and the ink was dry, he wrote the list on a a piece of limestone (which he had just polished) with the specially prepared stone ink just as he would have done on paper. When he was getting ready later on to wash the writing from the stone, he became curious to see what would happen if he poured the acid over it. He did this and found that those parts on which there was writing stood out a little bit above the rest of the stone which had been eaten away. He was able to make very clear impressions on paper of this writing. In this way he discovered lithography in its crude form, but he kept on working until he perfected the art.

Since Senefelder's time, lithography has advanced considerably, but the principles upon which this art is based are essentially the same. Instead of limestone plates, the lithographers of today use zinc and aluminum to a great extent. This is due, in part, to the fact that , the limestone which can be used for this purpose is found only in one quarry in the world, located at Solenhofen, Bavaria. The supply of this limestone is dwindling, and it has become very expensive. Zinc and aluminum plates are, therefore, being used because they are cheaper and easier to handle. Plates made of these two metals can be bent around the cylinders of presses, and can be used in the offset process of lithographic printing. When Senefelder first invented lithography, he used dry plates. Later on he found that he could get better results when he wetted the parts of the stone which did not contain the oily ink. Thus, when the stone was placed in the press, these parts were kept moist during the printing process. This art now depends on the fact that ink and water do not mix.

One of the most important developments in lithography was the invention of the offset process of printing in which an indirect method of making impressions is used. The offset press which is used in this process contains three cylinders; one holds the curved plate, the second holds a rubber blanket, and the third receives the sheet of paper upon which the printing is to be done. The plate cylinder makes the impression on the rubber blanket which is on the second cylinder, and this in turn transfers the impression to the sheet of paper which is carried on the third cylinder. In the early years of this invention only flat-bed hand presses were used. Today, however, we find flat-bed litho-graphic presses, rotary presses which print directly from the lithographic plates on the paper, and offset presses, all of which are operated by electricity.' The other important developments which have come about since the invention of lithography have improved the art to a very great extent and have enabled it to compete on an equal basis with the relief or raised-letter process of printing.

Lithography is the name still given to the process which we have just discussed, although very little stone is used today. Lithographic printing is much more important now, however, and it is used more extensively than ever before. Labels of all kinds, posters, letter-heads, advertising novelties, colored postcards, magazine covers, and many other printed products are now produced by the lithographic method. This process of printing is becoming increasingly popular because it can produce articles which the other methods cannot, and new uses are being found for it constantly. It is a branch of the printing industry which is expanding to such an extent that it is assured of a good future.

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