History Flows on a River of Ink: Exploring the Origins of Modern Ink

Featured image:  Caran d'Ache Leman Limited Edition Fountain Pen Set and Ink - Klein Blue


Across our articles page we have discussed the history of various Pen brands (Pineider, Faber-Castell, TWSBI) and specific pens (Parker Duofold, Visconti Il Magnifico & even Trench Pens). 

There is a great deal of pleasure to be taken from pens, but much like Steve McQueen’s Triumph TR6 Trophy - without fuel they’re not going anywhere! The fuel here being Ink...but of course you knew that from the title of this piece!

Image Credit: BBC/ Alamy 2017 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-41809557

In the past couple of years (probably the last decade actually) there has been something of a social revival of the fountain pen. It is no longer the case that they are reserved for very serious business men and their important documents, or fancy ladies and their checkbooks (does anyone use checkbooks anymore?). Fountain pens are no longer sacred objects to be collected and only used on ‘special occasions’ (although there certainly remains many models which are just that!). Fountain pens have been brought back to the everyday, to the student, the journaller, the artist, the office worker. For every scribbled note in fushia ink there is a handwritten letter delicately formed with beautiful lettering in a rich royal blue.



Above: Lamy Safari

Those rejecting the sterility of screens and those who wish to experience the feel of pen to paper are not just reaching for a trusty cheap biro multipack! This has perhaps been magnified during the 2020/2021 covid-19 pandemic where stationery and writing instruments for pleasure, art and creativity have been incredibly popular.  With fountain pens to fit every taste and every budget - they are there to be used! A quality fountain pen does not have to cost the equivalent of a shiny Triumph motorcycle so the experience is open to all, as is the world of ink.

With myriad types, colours, brands and forms you’d be forgiven for being a little lost in it all - which of course I was in the process of deciding how to approach an article about inks for you. It is more of a series of books than an article (of which there are several on the market I'm sure)!  I toyed with a discussion of corrosion or the popularity of sheen and colour changing options or even perhaps scented inks and yet I kept circling back like a magpie to a discarded pile of shiny objects. Perhaps further offerings may come in later articles, should people be interested, but for this moment I was entirely compelled to delve into history.  

The History of the Development of Ink

So, a brief step back in time to discover a little something about the development of writing ink it is! It is of no surprise that the history of ink runs parallel to the history of pens themselves, although it could be argued that unlike the chicken and egg debate, the origins here are clear -  ink predates pens as we know them. 

Image credit: Spencer Wing.

The simplest of google searches will provide fair detail about the global history of inks so I will delve only into the rockpools of what is a vast ocean of information about how ink has developed over time, and how it is so very imperative to the recording of culture, religion and society. Some may say that pen and ink were the key to the furtherance of mankind in many ways - to the extent that it may humbly be referred to as the greatest invention of human history! To butcher the words of the great Maya Angelou; ‘I have great respect for the past. If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going’, and so, into the past we go!

Ancient Ink

Although historically widespread and apparently mundane (scoffs!), modern ink is anything but simple. Ever since the end of the ice age, inks of all types have been devised and refined with each a part of its own cultural and geographic context.

Essentially inks are comprised of two parts; colour and a way for colour to attach itself to its intended surface. The way those two elements interact and are composed is a product of those creating the ink and of the purpose of the ink, thus there are complexities and curiosities attached to its value and chemistry. Inks are bound by the time of their conception, their location and the intended use of the product, Ancient Chinese ink had physical and cultural differences to the iron gall inks of the European middle ages and modern fountain pen inks are ultimately far removed from printing inks whether contemporary or originating with the 15th Century Gutenberg Press.

When we talk of ancient/or early inks, we are usually referring to black inks developed before 2500 BC which were suspensions of carbon in water, stabilised with a natural gum. Modern inks are far more complex. In addition to pigment, certain recipes call for a range of other ingredients in varying concentrations. In the chemistry of inks, these further ingredients are known as the ‘vehicle’ and may include, modifiers of ph level, polymeric resins to address binding, antifoaming agents, wetting agents to control surface properties, humectants to prevent premature drying, biocides to inhibit bacterial growth and modifiers to control thickness and ink application. The creation of ink is not only an art but it is a science! 

Early Chinese Inks

China in the 23rd Century BC onwards had created various forms of ink made with plants, minerals and even animal products and it is said that pine sap from trees which were between 50 and 100 years old were the preferred ingredients. The ink created was to be used on silks and early forms of paper predominantly applied with brush style pens. A deep pigmented ink was achieved by grinding ash, lampblack and bone black pigment with pestle and mortar. The pigment which was produced was dried into small sticks or pads which would later be combined with binder liquids such as water to transform the block into liquid ink. The deep black ink created by the Chinese was favoured by artists who created masterpieces in monochrome, layering strokes of ink with varying dilution to express their artistic vision. Some traditional manufacturers of Chinese Ink added incense to their recipes and offered other pigments or dyes to provide further colour options.

Main text of a Tang Dynasty copy of Wang Xizhi's Lantingji Xu by Feng Chengsu (馮承素).

Early Indian Inks

Their neighbours to the south, India, utilised bones, tar and pitch to create ‘Masi’, an ink product dating back perhaps as far as the 4th century BC. In a similar manner to the Chinese, Indians were creating incredibly rich inks with an ash base, however, the inks primary purpose related more to the encapsulation of Buddhist and Jain writings which scribes had been using pen and needle to lay down the words on a variety of materials for sometime - although artistic applications have also been noted. The main materials used to write upon in India, up until just over a thousand years ago, were products such as bark, leaves, cloth and wood as well as earthenware and shell. In the mid 17th Century, Europeans began importing Masi from India, renaming it Indian Ink (imaginative I know!). 

Image Credit: Francis Hayman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese and Indian Inks both stem from one of the oldest and most durable pigments known: Carbon Black. Not to be confused with the Australian heavy metal band, Carbon Black is essentially made from any ash base mixed with a binder such as water, other liquid products such as wine, or gum/glue. Recipes for Carbon Black date incredibly far back in history such as the recipe provided by Ancient Greek scribe Dioscorides which survives to this day on parchment dating between 40-90AD. However there exists many examples of ink which have no recipe origin and remain mysterious in their make-up. Dioscorides’ recipe called for the ink to be prepared in a more viscid manner than that we would be accustomed, which is evidenced by surviving examples of writing appearing in relief.


Early European Inks

Unlike the Ancient Chinese who treated and prepared their ink more like one would prepare watercolour paints, the Ancient Greeks went for a hardier approach. Similarly, the Romans were also creating Carbon Black based inks, Pliny the Elder (*takes a deep breath* author, naturalist, philosopher, naval & army commander, friend of emperor Vespasian and author of the only Roman encyclopaedia of natural history known to have survived - totalling around 37 volumes -  phew….altogether a pretty busy bloke!) was apparently concerned by the erasable nature of the common carbon black ink with only the slightest application of moisture. To avoid this, Pliny was known (as many of his era did) to use vinegar instead of water to temper the ink and promote the absorption of the ink into the writing surface and was more inclined to use lampblack than carbon black with a small amount of alcohol in the mixture to create a longer lasting ink. The extent to which this differentiated the ink from the eastern counterparts is somewhat contested and as I do not have a degree in chemistry I'll leave that to the professionals to debate!

Early Modern Inks

From the Middle Ages until the 19th Century in Europe, iron gall was the most frequently produced ink and so was known colloquially as ‘common ink’ (again, imaginative!). It was made in batches by hand until the 18th century when the industrial revolution allowed for production on a commercial scale. Iron gall ink is probably one of the most recognised early inks as it was characterised by a rusty brown colouring developing over time after the initial application landed as blueish black, it often went hand in hand with paper damage as the formula was inherently corrosive. Considering the main ingredients comprised of gall nuts, iron sulphate, water and arabic gum it should be of no surprise that the ink was corrosive due to the fact that gall nuts which form on oak trees, are natures irritant to hatching insects thus protecting the tree.

Image Credit: Photo by Ceinturion, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Printing Ink

Prior to iron gall inks popularity, the advent of mass printing in Europe, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1440s, saw the development of a new kind of ink. The printing press saw a side step from the water-based inks which had been used in previous iterations of the printing press seen in Korea and China a century or two earlier. As the Gutenberg Press used metal plates rather than wooden blocks, water-based inks just didn't cut it and a more viscous, thick consistency was required so an oil based alternative was developed. This gave the ink a finish more common to paint or varnish than water-based inks and the reflective grains of graphite alongside carbon, lead, titanium and sulphur gave the ink a characteristic sheen, intense colour and uniform tone. 

Image: Gutenberg taking an impression,  Printing and writing materials : their evolution, Smith, Adele Millicent (1904)

Conserving Ancient Ink 

Unlike contemporary inks which are well recorded, especially from the point of commercial production, ancient inks have for the most part remained slightly mysterious in terms of their recipe -  even with some examples of formulae existing. Researchers, scientists and conservationists have been using technology and advanced methods that many a lay person would find impossible to pronounce to reverse engineer some of the pigment found in ancient examples of writing. A collaboration between Columbia University and New York University - delightfully named the ‘Ancient Ink Laboratory’ - has been undertaking nondestructive techniques to analyse ancient ink samples whilst also studying fermentation residues from winemaking which it is believed would have also been used in the mixing of inks. Hilary Becker, an assistant classics professor at the University of Mississippi who joined the collaboration in 2017 found interesting references in Roman texts speaking of indelible and invisible inks as well as complaints from the public about poor quality inks with flawed ingredients - nice to see that Ancient Rome also had their version of google 1 star rating reviews! 

An interesting discovery was that of a fifth century law which mandated that only emperors could write with a purple ink which was made from charred seashells, any others who came by this prized ink would be sentenced to death! Can you imagine! Quick...get your Diamine Purple Pazzazz into the cutout behind the family portrait, chuck your J Herbin Amethyste de l'Oural under the floorboards and hide your Pilot Iroshizuku Murasaki-Shikibu under the dogs basket! 



All the colours of the rainbow!


Speaking of colours, ink is widely available in such a multitude of colours that I shant bore you by listing them! An ink's color comes from either a dye which is water soluble or a pigment which is insoluble (although pigment is often used as a general term across the board - just to add a level of confusion!). The dye eosin lends red ink its color and is achieved by taking a fluorescent compound and adding bromine whereas other inks employ pigments such as white ink which contains titanium oxide, metallic gold ink which unsurprisingly enjoys a copper-zinc alloy. Blue colour can be obtained with substituted triphenylmethane dyes and you will find that many permanent inks contain iron sulphate and gallic/tannic acids as well as dyes and pigments.  Carbon black remains one of the most commonly used elements in pen ink, especially those pertaining to shades of black and grey. It is becoming more common (and fashionable to an extent) to draw back on historical influence for more natural products to produce colour in inks due to levels of toxicity and the sustainability and impact of ink on the environment - again that is a conversation for another day.


Every manufacturer has its own take on the classics and it is becoming more and more fashionable to create weird and wonderful colours often with matching obscure names. There is an intriguing growth of independent and craft ink manufacture, one we are particularly fond of at The Hamilton Pen Company is KWZ Inks. KWZ Inks is run by Konrad Zurawski and his wife Agnieszka in Warsaw, Poland where they make all their inks by hand. Ink production started in 2012 as a hobby but soon created worldwide interest through the fountain pen community and now boasts a portfolio of over 40 colours in the Standard range and over 20 Iron Gall colours. The passion they have for ink reflects in every aspect of their work from initial conception of a colour through manufacturing, testing and finally hand writing the label on the bottle!


Another Ink company that is leading the pack in Ink development is Anderillium Inks. With no plastics or animal products used in their inks or packaging, you can have outstanding quality inks whilst knowing you are not contributing to the environmental crisis! Whats not to love about that! Formulated in their Floridian laboratory, Anderillium Inks are custom formulated by their team of resident chemists. 


Everyone at Anderillium is passionate about protecting our oceans and wildlife, consequently they choose to use the most sustainable and environmentally friendly materials whenever possible, even if it costs a little bit more. At Hamilton Pens, we really like that! All the inks are beautifully presented in striking bottles and accompanied by ridiculously cool artwork created by Hawaiian artist and tattoo Master Kevin Reinert.

 There is a charm that beautifully balances the chemistry involved in the creation of inks that I enjoy! There are so many ‘home grown’ ink enthusiasts who are making waves in the world of pen and ink, competing with well known brands and injecting a new level of passion and artisanal flair to the industry. 


Regardless of the changes in fashion, science and utility of ink, one thing remains the same. Without ink we would be lost! Although it is true that the digital age is well upon us, a complete loss of ink would certainly be felt across the globe! And I for one would find the world an infinitely dull place without the joy of pen and ink, the scratch and flow of your tool of choice across a fresh sheet of paper and the satisfaction of seeing your innermost thoughts form right before your eyes in a plethora of colours, tones, shades, sheens and even smells!

 Explore the wide range of inks at The Hamilton Pen Company

This article is adapted from a contribution published in the WES Journal by guest writer Stacey.


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