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Alois Senefelder: The Inventor of Lithography

By Lorenzo Quaglio the Younger (1793–1869) - Bildarchiv Austria, Public Domain, Link

Experimenting with a new etching technique using greasy, acid resistant ink as a resist on a smooth, fine-grained stone of Solnhofen limestone from Bavaria, and discovering a new method of printing, the German actor, and playwright, Johann Alois Senefelder, is celebrated for inventing the printing technique of lithography in the last decade of 18th century.

Born Aloys Johann Nepomuk Franz Senefelder in Prague on November 6, 1771, Senefelder invented the most dominant form of print media production. The son of an actor at the Theatre Royal in Prague, the young Senefelder attended school in Munich. He later won a scholarship to study law in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt. At the age of twenty, his father died and Senefelder left his studies at the law school to support his mother and eight siblings.

Senefelder tried to support himself and his family as a performer and author, but without success. Then, he learned to print 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 engravings of printing plates, he tried to engrave them himself.

Senefelder's work on copper plates was not proving very successful when an accident led to his discovery of the possibilities of stone in 1796. Senefelder records that one day he jotted down a laundry list with grease pencil on a piece of Bavarian limestone. It occurred to him that if he etched away the rest of the surface, the markings would be left in relief. Two years of experimentation eventually led to the discovery of flat-surface printing (modern lithography).

On September 3, 1799, Senefelder was granted an exclusive license for his discovery. He joined with the André family of music publishers and refined both the chemical processes and the special form of printing press required for using the lithographic stones. He called it “stone printing” or “chemical printing”, but the French name “lithography” became more widely adopted.

In 1818, Senefelder documented his discovery in “Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey” (A Complete Course of Lithography). In later years, the King of Bavaria settled a handsome pension on Senefelder. A statue of Senefelder stands in the town of Solnhofen, where a lithographic stone is still quarried.

At the age of 62, Senefelder died in Munich on February 26, 1834.



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