A History of Ink: From Ancient Origins to Modern Innovations

Ink has been a vital human communication and creativity tool for thousands of years and has undergone many innovations and advancements from ancient to modern times.

In this article, we explore ink’s fascinating history and evolution, from its origins in ancient civilizations to the latest innovations in ink technology.

Ancient Inks: Origins and Uses in Ancient Civilizations

1. Ancient Inks: Origins and Uses in Ancient Civilizations

The invention of ink in ancient civilizations, such as Egypt, China, India, and the Middle East, played a vital role in communication and record-keeping.

The ink was applied using different tools, including reed pens, quills, and brushes, and used for writing on papyrus scrolls, parchment, or paper.

Additionally, intricate miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts were all created with ancient inks.

Using ink helped preserve knowledge and communication, leaving behind a rich legacy of art and literature.

1.1. Egypt

The ancient Egyptians used carbon-based inks to write on papyrus scrolls.

These inks were made by grinding soot or charcoal, mixing it with water and a binder, such as gum arabic.

The black pigment in ink was derived from carbon, providing a long-lasting and vibrant color.

Egyptians developed several techniques for ink production, including collecting soot from burning oils, wood, or bones and mixing it with gum arabic and water to create a smooth, black ink.

The resulting ink was thick and could be applied using a reed pen made from a thin, pointed reed split at the tip to hold the ink.

1.2. China

The Chinese invented inksticks and inkstones to create a more efficient way of producing and using ink.

Inksticks were made by mixing soot with a binder, such as animal glue, and then compressing the mixture into a solid stick.

They rubbed the inkstick on an inkstone which was a flat grinding surface with a small amount of water to produce an ink paste.

This paste was then in a more usable form for writing or painting.

In addition to carbon-based inks, the Chinese used plant-based dyes, such as indigo and safflower, to create colored inks.

1.3. India and the Middle East

Indian ink, also known as China ink, was developed in India and the Middle East.

Soot or lampblack was mixed with gum arabic or other binders and water to make the ink.

Indian ink was known for its durability and resistance to fading, making it ideal for writing and drawing.

Ink makers in India and the Middle East used natural pigments, such as ochre and malachite, and binders like gum arabic or egg whites to create inks in various colors.

People used these inks to write on palm leaves, parchment, or paper and create intricate miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts.

1.4. Rome

In ancient Rome, atramentum was the primary ink used for writing on various materials.

Atramentum was made by boiling down the soot of burnt pine resin, combining it with water and gum, and sometimes mixed with other substances like lead or copper salts for added viscosity and color.

It became a highly valued commodity, with ink merchants selling their products in markets across the Roman Empire.

Atramentum was a popular medium for painting and drawing, and many famous Roman artworks, including the murals of Pompeii, were created with this ink.

There were three main types of atramentum: librarium, used for writing; sutorium, used for dyeing leather and containing poisonous ingredients; and tectorium or pictorium, used by painters as a sort of varnish.

Ink production was a crucial industry in Roman culture and knowledge and techniques.

Surviving documents and artworks created with this ancient ink still reflect the legacy of atramentum.

1.5. Ingredients and Methods of Ancient Ink Production

Ancient ink recipes often included other materials to create different colors or modify the ink’s properties, including soot and carbon black.

For instance, they would add lead or copper salts to the atramentum to produce a bluish or greenish hue.

To improve viscosity and prevent the ink from drying out too quickly, honey, wine, or vinegar were also added.

The process of making ink varied depending on the recipe and region. Typically, ink production involves collecting and preparing raw materials and mixing and grinding them into a smooth paste. The resulting paste was then stored in a container until needed.

One standard method for preparing the ingredients involved collecting soot from burning oil or resin, mixing it with water and a binder, and then stirring or grinding the mixture with a mortar and pestle. In other cases, they burnt charcoal or bones to create the black pigment for ink.

Another method involved boiling or simmering the ingredients in a pot or cauldron. For example, sepia ink was made by boiling cuttlefish bone in water until a dark pigment was released and mixed with a binder.

Ancient Egyptians boiled a mixture of carbon black, water, and gum binder to create a thick paste for their hieroglyphic ink.

Ink production was a labor-intensive process that required skill and knowledge of the raw materials’ properties. The use of ink was vital for written communication and art throughout ancient times, and ink-making techniques were passed down from generation to generation.

2. The Medieval Revolution of Iron Gall Ink

The Medieval Revolution of Iron Gall Ink

During the medieval period, ink was crucial in developing calligraphy and creating illuminated manuscripts.

One of the most important innovations from this period was iron gall ink, made by combining a mixture of tannin-rich galls, iron salts, gum arabic, and water.

Its durability, water resistance, and ability to bind to parchment or paper made it a highly valued commodity in medieval times.

It became the primary writing ink in Europe for centuries.

2.1. Iron Gall Ink’s Influence on Calligraphy

Iron gall ink played a significant role in the development of calligraphy, particularly in the Gothic script and Carolingian minuscule styles.

Gothic script, characterized by its angular and ornate letterforms, was widely used in Europe from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

Scribes used iron gall ink and quill pens to create this intricate script, which became the standard for writing legal and religious documents and literary works.

Carolingian minuscule, another important script of the medieval period, was developed during the reign of Charlemagne in the late 8th and early 9th centuries and was written with iron gall ink, which provided precise lines and lasting legibility.

2.2. Natural Pigments in Illuminated Manuscripts

In addition to iron gall ink, medieval people created illuminated manuscripts using a variety of pigments, many of which came from natural sources such as minerals, plants, and insects.

Pigments were mixed with binders like egg whites or gum arabic to create vivid, long-lasting colors. Some common pigments in illuminated manuscripts included ultramarine (made from lapis lazuli), verdigris (a copper-based green), and red lead.

2.3. The Artistic Techniques in Medieval Manuscripts

The use of ink during the medieval period was functional and highly artistic.

Creating illuminated manuscripts was a laborious process involving intricate calligraphy and highly detailed illustrations.

These manuscripts provide a glimpse into the artistic techniques and materials used during this period, showcasing the artists’ and scribes’ creativity and ingenuity.

2.4. The Legacy of Iron Gall Ink and Illuminated Manuscripts

The development of iron gall ink and its use in calligraphy and illuminated manuscripts played a significant role in writing and art history.

This ink provided a durable and long-lasting medium that preserved manuscripts and other documents for future generations.

The use of natural pigments and binders in illuminated manuscripts also demonstrated the ingenuity and creativity of medieval artists, leaving behind a legacy of beautiful and intricate works of art.

3. Modern Ink Innovations

Modern Ink Innovations

Over the last century, ink has evolved significantly, bringing about innovations that have revolutionized how we write. From the development of fountain pen ink to the introduction of erasable pen ink and from the invention of the first gel pen to the creation of hybrid inks, ink technology has come a long way.

The following are some of the most notable modern ink innovations shaping the writing industry.

1894 – Waterman Ink

Waterman’s first ink formula was developed specifically for fountain pens. This innovation ensured a smooth flow and consistent performance, enhancing the writing experience.

1930’s – Quink Ink Parker’s

Quink ink combines quick-drying properties with a unique cleaning solution to help prevent clogging in fountain pens.

It reduced the need for constant pen maintenance and improved the reliability of fountain pens.

1938 – Laszlo Biro – Ballpoint Pen Ink

 Laszlo Biro developed a quick-drying, viscous ink for ballpoint pens that provided a smooth writing experience without constant dipping like fountain pens. This innovation revolutionized the pen industry.

For more information on Laszlo Biro, check out our guide about how ballpoint pens became known as Biros.

1960 – Edding Felt Tip Pen

The Edding 300 Felt-tip pen introduced a durable felt-tip pen with a polyester nib.

The pen used quick-drying, water-resistant, and smudge-proof alcohol-based ink and became popular among artists, designers, and writers, offering improvements over earlier felt-tip pens.

1960 – Ohto – Non-Smudged Ballpoint Pen

Ohto developed the world’s first non-smudged ballpoint pen tip with a 0.6mm ball and document ink.

This innovation provided users with cleaner and more accurate writing, reducing smearing and smudging.

1964 – Sharpie – Permanent Marker Ink

Sharpie introduced a fast-drying, waterproof, and permanent ink that wrote on various surfaces.

This innovation allowed for broader applications, including marking on materials other than paper.

1964 – Ohto Roller Pen

Ohto introduced the world’s first Roller Pen, which used water-based ink.

This new category of pens offered a smoother writing experience, bridging the gap between ballpoint pens and fountain pens.

1966 – Fisher Space Pen – Thixotropic Ink

Fisher’s Space Pen utilized pressurized ink cartridge refills and thixotropic ink to write for writing in extreme conditions such as zero gravity, underwater, and other challenging environments. This innovation made writing possible in previously tricky situations.

Check out our Guide on The Fisher Space Pen Vs. the Uni Power Tank to see how it stacks up against a cheaper alternative.

1970 – Papermate – Erasable pen ink

Papermate introduced the first erasable pen, allowing users to quickly correct mistakes without needing correction fluid. This innovation simplified the writing and editing process.

1980’s – Sakura – Pigma Micron Pen with Archival Quality Ink

 Sakura’s Pigma Micron pen featured a pigment-based, waterproof, fade-resistant, and archival quality ink designed for artists and illustrators.

This pen quickly became popular among creative professionals needing reliable and long-lasting ink.

1983 – Uni Posca – Creative Art Marker with Water-Based Ink

 Uni Posca introduced a versatile, water-based ink marker for creative art applications. The markers provided a bold, opaque color and could be used on various surfaces, expanding the possibilities for artists and designers.

1984 – Sakura – Invention of the First Gel Ink Pen

Sakura pioneered gel ink technology, which offered smooth writing and vibrant colors. Gel pens quickly gained popularity due to their unique writing experience and diverse color options.

1990’s – Uni-ball – Uni Super Ink

 Uni-ball’s Vision Elite pen features airplane-safe ink technology and Uni Super Ink, which is fade-resistant, water-resistant, and tamper-resistant.

This innovation provided added security and longevity for important documents.

2004 – Uni-ball – Jetstream Hybrid Ink Pen

Uni-ball’s Jetstream pen introduced a hybrid ink that combined the best qualities of gel and ballpoint inks, offering smooth, fast-drying writing.

This innovation further enhanced the writing experience and reduced smudging.

2005 – Noodler’s Bulletproof Ink

In 2005, Noodler’s Ink introduced the Bulletproof line of inks for fountain pens.

This innovative ink is waterproof, fade-resistant, and resistant to forgery, making it an ideal choice for legal documents, checks, and other essential papers.

 Noodler’s Bulletproof ink is resistant to water, UV light, and chemical solvents, making it more durable than many other types of ink.

2006 – Pilot – Frixion Series with Thermo-Sensitive Ink

Pilot’s Frixion series used thermo-sensitive ink erased using friction-generated heat.

This innovation gave users a convenient way to correct mistakes without needing separate erasers or correction fluid.

2006 – Platinum Pen Co. – Platinum Carbon Ink

Platinum introduced Carbon Ink, a pigment-based ink for fountain pens. This innovation provided durable, waterproof, and fade-resistant ink well-suited for artists, calligraphers, and writers.

2014 – Diamine – Shimmering Fountain Pen Ink

Diamine introduced its shimmering ink collection, which featured glitter particles suspended in ink.

This innovation added a unique and eye-catching effect to handwriting and calligraphy.

2017 – Ohto – Flash Dry Gel Ink

Ohto introduced Flash Dry Gel Ink, which featured an incredibly fast-drying formula that reduced smudging and improved the writing experience for left-handed users and others who struggled with slow-drying inks.

4. Specialty Inks: Advancements in Ink Technology

Specialty Inks Advancements in Ink Technology

4.1. Invisible and Security Inks

From Lemon Juice to High-Tech Formulations For centuries, invisible and security inks have been used for espionage, secret messages, and fraud prevention.

Initially manufactured from natural substances like lemon juice or milk, the ink would become visible when heated or exposed to ultraviolet light.

Modern security inks have advanced today, including color-shifting, holographic, and inks only visible under specific lighting conditions.

These high-tech formulations help to protect valuable items from counterfeiting and forgery, ensuring their authenticity and value.

4.2. Thermo-Sensitive and Rewritable Inks

The evolution of erasable writing thermo-sensitive inks began with ink which changes color when heat exposure, was invented in the 1970s.

These inks led to the creation of the first erasable pens using thermo-sensitive inks by the Pilot Pen Company in 2006, allowing users to correct mistakes without needing correction fluid or other methods.

Today, erasable and rewritable inks are commonly used in pens, markers, and other writing instruments, providing a convenient and eco-friendly solution for note-taking, drawing, and other applications where mistakes may need to be corrected.

4.3. Sustainable Inks A Greener Approach to Ink Production

Manufacturers have developed water-based and vegetable-based inks as more sustainable alternatives to conventional inks.

These inks use water or vegetable oil as the primary solvent, reducing the need for harmful chemicals and making them less hazardous to the environment and human health.

Although eco-friendly inks offer significant environmental benefits, they can also present challenges in performance and durability.

Innovations in sustainable ink production include the development of bio-based pigments and energy-efficient manufacturing processes, which are helping to reduce the environmental footprint of ink production.

4.4. Electronic Ink Technology

Electronic ink, or e-ink, is a display technology that uses tiny particles suspended in a liquid to create images on a screen. E-ink displays are known for their low power consumption, high contrast, and readability in bright light. Recent advancements in e-ink technology include the development of flexible, color, and higher-resolution displays, opening up new possibilities for innovative products and applications.

4.5. Conductive Inks

Conductive inks contain conductive materials, such as silver or carbon, which enable them to transmit electrical currents.

These inks can be printed onto various substrates to create flexible circuits, sensors, and other electronic components.

The use of conductive inks has revolutionized the field of printed electronics, enabling the production of lightweight, flexible, and low-cost electronic devices.

Applications include wearable technology, medical sensors, and smart packaging.

4.6. 3D Printing Inks

From Filaments to Customizable, Complex Objects 3D printing inks, also known as filaments or resins, are specially formulated materials that create three-dimensional objects by extruding or curing specially formulated materials layer by layer.

These inks come in various types, including plastics, metals, and ceramics, depending on the finished object’s 3D printing process and desired properties.

3D printing inks have revolutionized the field of additive manufacturing, creating complex, custom, and intricate objects that were previously impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing techniques.

The ability to create highly detailed and precise objects with 3D printing inks has led to medical, architecture, and aerospace engineering breakthroughs.

With the continued advancement of 3D printing technology, we can expect to see even more innovative and creative applications of 3D printing inks.

4.7. Modern inks: Are they safe?

While modern ink technology has brought about many advancements and innovations, there have been concerns regarding the toxicity of specific ink formulations.

Many pens and markers contain solvents and other chemicals that may be harmful if ingested or come into contact with the skin.

However, the risk of ink poisoning from a regular writing pen is relatively low, as discussed in this article from Penvibe: “Can You Get Ink Poisoning from an Ordinary Writing Pen?” Nevertheless, handling ink-containing products with care is essential, and as always, read warning labels and product information.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, the history and evolution of ink have been marked by continuous innovation, from the earliest carbon-based inks of ancient civilizations to the cutting-edge digital and specialty inks of today.

As our understanding of materials and technology continues to advance, we can expect even more exciting developments in the world of ink, shaping the way we communicate, create, and interact with our environment.


6. FAQ’S

Q: What were some common colors of ink used in ancient civilizations?

A: In addition to black, ancient civilizations used a variety of natural pigments to create colored inks. For example, the ancient Chinese used indigo and safflower to create blue and red inks.

Q: What are the colors of historical ink?

A: Historical inks were primarily black or brown, but other colors used natural pigments such as indigo, saffron, and malachite

Q: What colors were ancient tattoo ink?

A: Ancient tattoo ink was usually black, made from carbon black, ash, or soot mixed with a liquid, such as water or oil.

Q: Are eco-friendly inks as durable as conventional inks? A: While eco-friendly inks may present some challenges in terms of performance and durability, ongoing research and development efforts are focused on improving the properties of these inks to make them more competitive with traditional options.

.Q: Is ink made from squid?

A: Yes, using squid or cephalopods to create ink is possible. Squid ink is used as a food coloring and in traditional ink-making in some cultures.

Q: What is fountain pen ink made of?

A: Manufacturers make fountain pen ink using water, dye, and a small surfactant to reduce surface tension and allow the ink to flow smoothly. They use various dyes and pigments to produce a broad spectrum of colors.

Q: How does bioprinting using ink technology work?

A: Bioprinting uses bio-inks from living cells or biomaterials to create living tissues and organs. The ink is deposited layer by layer to create the desired structure, and then the cells are allowed to grow and develop into functional tissue.


Alexander Allen, Ph.D. – Atramentum

Green and Stone of Chelsea – The Secrets of Sepia

Filipino Inventions and Discoveries –  Quink fountain pen ink – a Filipino invention

The Iron Gall Ink Website – Iron Gall Ink

Asia Nikkei – Pilot’s ‘erasable’ pens revolutionized writing

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Peter Warrior: Pen & Pencil Expert

With nearly a decade of experience in the pen industry, I successfully ran an online pen business for 9 years. My deep-rooted passion for pens and pencils led me to become a part-time blogger, where I've dedicated myself to sharing the wealth of knowledge I've amassed over the years. I'm a firm believer in the power of the written word, as echoed by Malcolm Forbes: "Putting pen to paper lights more fire than matches ever will." My expertise is not just rooted in business, but in the genuine appreciation and understanding of the art of writing instruments.

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