Alois Senefelder

Birth: 1771


Alois Senefelder (1771-1834), German inventor of lithography, was born at Munich on the 6th of November 1771, his father Peter being an actor at the Theatre Royal. Owing to the death of his father he was unable to continue his legal studies at the university of Ingolstadt, and tried to support himself as a performer and author, but without success.

In order to accelerate the publication of one of his works, he frequently spent whole days in the printing office, and found the process of printing so simple that he conceived the idea of purchasing a small printing press, thus enabling himself to print and publish his own compositions. Unable to pay for the engraving of his compositions, he attempted to engrave them himself. He made numerous experiments with little success; tools and skill were alike wanting. Copper-plates were expensive, and the want of a sufficient number entailed the tedious process of grinding and polishing afresh those he had used.

About this period his attention was accidentally directed to a fine piece of Kellheim stone which he had purchased for the purpose of grinding his ink. His first idea was to use it merely for practice in his exercises in writing backwards, the ease with which the stone could be ground and polished afresh being the chief inducement. While he was engaged one day in polishing a stone slab on which to continue his exercises, his mother entered the room and desired him to write her a bill for the washer-woman, who was waiting for the linen.

Neither paper nor ink being at hand, the bill was written on the stone he had just polished. The ink used was composed of wax, soap and lamp-black. Some time afterwards, when about to wipe the writing from the stone, the idea all at once struck him to try the effect of biting the stone with aqua fortis. Surrounding the stone with a border of wax, he covered its surface with a mixture of one part of aqua fortis and ten parts of water. The result of the experiment was that at the end of five minutes he found the writing elevated about the tenth part of a line (1/120 in.)

He then proceeded to apply the printing ink to the stone, using at first a common printer's ball, but soon found that a thin piece of board covered with fine cloth answered better, communicating the ink more equally. He was able to take satisfactory impressions, and, the method of printing being new, he hoped to obtain a patent for it, or even some assistance from the government. For years Senefelder continued his experiments, until the art not only became simplified, but reached a high degree of excellence in his hands. In later years the king of Bavaria settled a handsome pension on Senefelder. He died at Munich in 1834, having lived to see his invention brought to comparative perfection.


1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 24. pgs. 638-639.

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