History Of Lithography

What Is Litho Printing

History of Lithography

Applications of Litho Printing

The Lithographic Printing Process


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Lithography or litho printing is a relatively young form of printing as compared to screen printing and others. Little did Alois Senefelder know what he was really discovering when he patented the lithographic printing process in 1799. Senefelder’s discovery changed the face of the printing industry.

Senefelder Discovers Lithographic Printing

Alois Senefelder as a young boy had a passion for theatre. Finding little success as an actor, he became a fairly successful comic playwright. However, he found that the profits were very little unless he could find a method to make multiple copies of his songs and play quickly. Thus began the unknowing endeavor that would eventually be the lithographic printing process.

In those days copper plates were used in printing. However, creating the text and images to be printed in reverse on the plates was a difficult process. Senefelder thus decided to use cheap slabs of Bavarian limestone to practice the art of reverse imaging. In the meantime he also made a liquid of wax, soap, lamp black and rainwater to help him correct mistakes on the copper plates.

It was these two materials – limestone and the correction fluid that subsequently became the cornerstones of litho printing.

It wasn’t long before Senefelder realized through experimentation that using the correction fluid to draw on the limestone gave him an image resistant to water. He could then treat the limestone with water and follow it up with oil-based ink. When applied to paper the image would be printed right side up. Thus Senefelder invented what he called ‘chemical printing’ and later patented lithography in 1799.

The Rise of Lithography & The Transfer Process

In 1817 Senefelder designed a press that would automatically dampen and ink the plate thus making the process even simpler. The first lithograph appeared in the US in 1819 and the demand for lithographic printing increased tremendously. By 1971 there were at least 450 hand operated and 30 steam presses in the US alone.

Senefelder is also credited with the discovery of the transfer process. Through experimentation Senefelder realized that he could transfer drawings and writing from paper onto the lithographic stone to create the printing image. This was a great discover as it allowed people to ‘copy’ previously existing text and images. In addition, one no longer needed to be expert at reverse imaging.

Engelmann’s Litho Color Printing & The Rotary Litho Press

It was in 1837 that Godefroy Engelmann discovered Litho color printing or Lithographs in color imitating painting. Litho printing became even more popular and toward the late eighteenth century the first rotary lithographic press was invented. Now lithography could be used to produce large quantity of prints just like letterpress printing. Unfortunately, the abrasive action of the rotary machine made the images wear off too soon to allow the printing of large quantities. Thus, rotary lithographic presses never became really popular.

Photolithography & The Litho Offset Press

Lithography got another boost when the French chemist, Alphonse Louis Poitevin invented Photolithography in 1855. Again however, because of the difficulty of creating lithographic plates, this printing technique lay dormant in waiting for some new miracle.

It was in 1875 that the lithographic offset press was invented. It was subsequently that offset lithography really took off and people paid due attention to this printing technique.

Today, limestone is no longer used and has been replaced by metal plates. The stencils or images are designed using photographic plates and a three roller offset press is used for actual printing. Thus, lithographic printing or lithography has come a long way from its point of origin.

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