Enduring Ink

[This is taken from David N. Carvalho's Forty Centuries of Ink, originally published in 1904.]



TO ascertain the correct formula of a substantially permanent ink, as we have learned, has been the aim during a century or more, of able chemists, manufacturers and laymen. Their experiments and study of ancient and modern documents all point unerringly in the direction of an ink containing iron and galls.

Accumulated evidence may be said to establish itself in the light of investigation and experience and becomes more and more a certainty when considered, reviewed and discussed in connection with a chronological history of the “gall” inks since they came into semi-official and other uses centuries ago.  Descriptions of MSS. containing ink writings hundreds of years old, many of them as legible as when first written, are silent witnesses whose testimony cannot be assailed. Such information when assembled together minimizes many of the conditions which have existed and interposed in preventing during the last four decades a general adoption or re-adoption of such a tanno-gallate of iron ink, the lasting qualities of which some of our forefathers estimated would, and as we know have stood the test of time.

Assuming this character of ink to have been employed in past centuries, the cause or causes for the differentiations in respect to color and durability become of paramount importance.

The investigations of the writer in this direction, while in some respects traveling the same road followed by others, diverged from them and has been more in the nature of a comparative analytical and microscopic examination of ancient with ancient and modern with modern documents in connection with numerous chemical experiments, the manufacture of hundreds of inks and the study of their time and other phenomena.

To accomplish this, ancient documents not written with “Indian” ink, but with those obviously containing combinations of iron and galls or other tannins, were selected and grouped into color families.  They began with the fourteenth century, continuing well into the nineteenth, to the number of nearly four hundred, each of them of a different date and different year. Some of them were so pale and indistinct as to be illegible, others less so and by gradual steps they approached to a definite black; many of them as rich and deep in color as if they had been written not centuries ago but within a few years. Signatures on the same document represented different degrees of color, so that the question of the material on which the writing appeared affecting the appearance of the ink, was not a factor; but the difference in the inks used to make the signatures was the determining factor.

At this point it may be noted that the investigations conducted by Mr. Swan before referred to and those by the writer and the resultant observations of each were substantially alike. Many of the writer’s, however, preceded those of Mr. Swan’s, for during the years 1885 and 1886, having had the custody of part of the Archives of the City of New York there were many opportunities to study this subject which were taken advantage of, before and after which time frequent examinations were made of writings much more ancient than those pertaining to New York.

Assuming a second premise was to assert that the inks employed in the writing of these documents were “straight” or possessed some “added” pigment or color. Again, the vehicles to hold the particles or possibly preserving substances, might be factors.

All literature possible referring to ink formulas was examined to ascertain the names of materials recommended or formerly “added” to gall inks, because if the pristineness of the blacker inks was due to the added pigment it was a safe proposition that it was still existent in the ink, and that if it could be discovered part at least of the problem would be, simplified.

The “added” color compounds, excluding those of the aniline family which pertain to the more modern ink compositions, are of two classes: those possessing tannin and color-yielding materials and those containing only a color-yielding material. Many of the first class have been used in the manufacture of ink both with infusions of nut-galls or alone, while but very few of the second class have been used for either purpose.  The decomposing action of light, oxygen and moisture on many of each class placed them beyond the purview of consideration, while the dates of the discovery and the fact of the small percentage of tannin contained in others permitted them also to be discarded. For instance: vanadium, which is fairly permanent, was discovered only in 1830; chanchi, the ink plant of New Granada discovered in the sixteenth century, possessing excellent lasting qualities, does not assimilate perfectly with other constituents used in the manufacture of ink, but is best when used alone;

Berlin blue (prussian blue) is well spoken of, but was only discovered by accident in 1710 by Diesbach, a preparer of colors at Berlin; logwood, more used for this purpose than any other material, was first imported into Europe in the sixteenth century and causes a deterioration of the durable qualities of the tanno-gallate of iron; Brazil-wood and archil, and their allies, are exceedingly fugitive; bablah, the fruit of the acacia arabica, myrabolams, of Chinese growth, catechu, and sumac which though used in the time of Pliny, each contains a percentage of gallic acid too small to meet the requirements.  Divi-divi, a South American product, came into use only at the end of the sixteenth century and has not stood the test of time.

This sifting process completely eliminated all but lampblack, madder and indigo in some form as a permanent “added” color pigment. Lampblack, which is we know forms the basis of “Indian” ink, is not soluble and requires a very heavy gummy vehicle to prevent its immediate precipitation, and while it could have been used in combination with tanno-gallate of iron as an ink, the fact that it was possible to chemically remove the ancient inks which remained black, was a sufficient demonstration that this carbon substance, which is not affected by chemicals, either as contained in the fluid ink or as dusted on after writing, could have formed no part of the ancient tanno-gallate of iron inks.

Madder is mentioned as of very ancient times and was cultivated in Europe as early as the tenth century; its addition to an iron and gall ink is said to be an invention of the year 1855; it is certain, however, that it was used for a like purpose as early as 1826, and a fair presumption that it was frequently employed in some form during the preceding four centuries. It has under certain conditions very lasting properties as the madder-dyed cloths found wrapped around Egyptian mummies demonstrates, but does not assist the tanno-gallate of iron to retain its black color; on the contrary it seems to lessen this quality.

That indigo for added color was employed by ink manufacturers in the eighteenth century is shown by the formulas appearing in the literature of that time.  It was used alone as an ink long before, as well as contemporaneously with, those of the tanno-gallate of iron family. Its lasting properties are most remarkable if it be true that, used as a dye, there is still in existence specimens of it on cloth five thousand or more years old. The history of its use ALONE as an ink is difficult to ascertain back of a certain period; the writer has several specimens of it, one written in 1692 whose color is a green blue; another written about a century ago is believed to be as bright blue as the day it was placed on the paper; from 1810 to 1850 it was in common use particularly in hot climates where it was “home-made.” Consequently if the old “gall” inks contained a lasting added color, indigo must have been the one, Dr. Stark whose investigations along this line for twenty-three years have already been cited has said that he preferred for his own use an ink composed of galls, sulphate of indigo and copperas (sulphate of iron); this means a tanno-gallate of iron ink with indigo for “added” color.

Like formulas calling for different proportions of constituents both before and after his time in England and the continents of Europe and America are to be found in considerable number, proving that its use was more or less constant in this respect. To determine, then, whether or not the blacker specimens of the ancient writings contained indigo in any of its forms was most important, and the plan adopted most simple. Specimens of writing in ink of which the manufacturer’s name was known as well as his formula and only thirty years old showed evidence of considerable “browning;” some of them when tested in juxtaposition with those of from fifty to one hundred years old which had turned completely brown, gave approximately the same results, and differentiated largely from the results obtained from jet black specimens of eighty to five hundred or more years of age. In a number of the browner ones indigo was found to be present while in many of the black ones it was not, demonstrating that the reason for the continuing blackness of the older inks is not due to an added color or pigment of any kind and furthermore that the “Stark” and corresponding ink formulas after the test of TIME did not retain their original blackness but deteriorated to a brown color; moreover, that their purpose as in the present day was to give an agreeable and immediate color result, a free-flowing ink, and to cheapen the cost of manufacture when compared with that of an unadulterated tanno-gallate of iron ink.

No disagreement being now possible as to the lasting color virtues of a properly proportioned tanno-gallate of iron ink WITHOUT an “added” color or pigment, there remained the sole question as to the vehicle utilized to hold this combination in suspension and whether or not it had to do with the continuing blackness of the older inks.

The answer must lie between the vegetable product known as gum and the animal product known as gelatine. The first disintegrates, quickly absorbs moisture and gradually disappears, while gelatine (isinglass) “contains under conditions 50% carbon, although its molecular formula has not yet been determined. It cannot be converted into vapor and does not form well-defined compounds with other bodies; it is insoluble in alcohol which precipitates it in flakes from its aqueous solution. It is also precipitated by tannin, which combines with it to form an insoluble non-putrescible compound. Gallic acid, however, does not precipitate it.” (Bloxam.)

Possessing an undisturbed and complete history it was the very substance employed long before the discovery of gall ink, and is found present in the earliest specimens of the “Indian” inks which remain to us.

It must now be evident that there can be no material difference of opinions as to what has been so clearly and conclusively established, viz. that ink which contains a base of tanno-gallate of iron (without “added” color) is a permanent ink, and the length of its durability and continuing pristineness can be disturbed only by inferior quality of constituents, wrong methods of admixture and its future environment. Hence any black ink with this combination missing is of no practical value whatever either for record or commercial uses.

“Indian” ink, except for specific purposes, belongs to the great past and will so continue with its virtues unchallenged and proven, until some solvent is discovered for the carbon which forms nearly the whole of its composition, at which time THE perfect ink can be said to have been discovered.





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