Alois Senefelder revolutionized Printing Technology

Alois Senefelder (1771-1834),
Lithographic Portrait, 1818

On November 6, 1771, Alois Senefelder, actor, playwright, and inventor of the lithographic printing technology was born. His father, Johann Peter Senefelder, an actor at the Royal Theatre of Munich, was playing at Prague, then Imperial city (Reichsstadt) of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, at the time of the birth of his son. The young Senefelder studied at Munich and received a scholarship, which enabled him to study jurisprudence at Ingolstadt. The death of his father in 1791 forced him to cease his studies in order to help support his mother and a family of eight sisters and brothers. After attempting to become an actor, he took up dramatic writing, at which he was at first fairly successful with a play called ‘Connoisseur of Girls‘.

In order to publish his plays himself, Senefelder learned printing in a printing office, purchased a small press, and sought to do his own printing. Desiring to publish plays that he had written but unable to afford the expensive engraving of printing plates, Senefelder tried to engrave them himself. Senefelder experimented with relief and intaglio printing processes, using smooth fine-grained stone of Solnhofen limestone as the printing surface. To overcome the difficulty of writing in reverse, he tried writing on paper using a special ink and transferring this to the stone face down, therefore in reverse. Thus he mastered the transfer method. He next turned his attention to the fact of the non-compatibility of grease and water when applied to the stone, leading to the invention of lithography in 1799. Senefelder recorded that one day he jotted down a laundry list with grease pencil on a piece of Solnhofen limestone. It occurred to him that if he etched away the rest of the surface, the markings would be left in relief. He called it “stone printing” or “chemical printing”, but the French name “lithography” became more widely adopted.

In 1818 Senefelder published a full account of the nature and the history of his invention in ‘Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerei‘ . The English translation, ‘A Complete Course of Lithography‘, appeared in 1819 and remained in print into the early 20th century. Senefelder was also able to exploit the potential of lithography as a medium for art. Unlike previous printmaking technique such as engraving which required advanced craft skills, lithography allowed the artist to draw directly onto the plate with familiar pens. Lithography became a popular medium among many artists. Francisco de Goya, Théodore Géricault, and Eugène Delacroix were among the first lithographers. Famous French caricaturist Honoré Daumier was far more prolific, however, making about 4,000 designs, ranging from newspaper caricatures to broadsides printed on a single sheet. Daumier was one of the first lithographers to make use of the process called transfer lithography, by which the tusche drawing is made on paper instead of on the lithographic stone. Senefelder lived long enough to see his process become widely adopted both for art printmaking and as the dominant method of picture reproduction in the printing industry. On February 28, 1834, Alois Senefelder passed away aged 62 in Munich.

At yovisto you can learn more about modern lithographic printing technology in the lecture of Dr. Zangerle from Freiburg University (in German).

References and further Reading:

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