Alois Senefelder (1771–1834)

Alois Senefelder invented and patented lithographic printing, which became the dominant method for reproducing images in the printing industry from the early nineteenth century. It was the first radical development in printing since the invention of moveable type.

Senefelder was not a printer or industrialist but an actor and playwright. He was born in Prague in 1771, where his father was performing at the Theatre Royal. The family returned to their home in Munich and after schooling there he studied law at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria from 1789 to 1793. On his return home he began acting and writing plays. He wished to print the plays he had written but could not afford the expense of copper engraving. He discovered by accident that writing in a greasy pencil on smooth limestone might offer a way of direct printing. He developed the technique so that he could make marks that would attract oil-based ink and chemically treat the areas of bare stone so they would repel it.

He used Solnhofen limestone from Bavaria to make the printing plates and called the process Steindruckerei (stone printing) but it became better known around the world by the French name lithography. It was more flexible than copper-plate engraving and reduced costs by about 80%.

In 1796 he began to work with the music publisher Makarius Falter and the composer Franz Gleissner, who recognised that lithography was particularly suitable for reproducing sheet music. He was also helped by his brothers. Their publications proved successful and in 1799 Senefelder granted the music publisher Johann Anton André at Offenbach am Main the right to use his process. In 1801 he registered a patent in Britain. Two years later he established a method for using zinc plates as an alternative to limestone, enabling larger images to be printed. Artists were soon using the technique to reproduce their work. Senefelder also developed it for fabric printing. Its use in printing maps was quickly recognised and Senefelder was appointed in 1809 to a lithographic institute for map surveyors in Bavaria. He helped to establish similar institutions in Berlin, Paris, London and Vienna.

In 1819 Senefelder wrote his book 'Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey', which was published in French and in English as 'A Complete Course in Lithography'. This included examples of his new colour process, chromolithography. Towards the end of his life he developed the basis of offset lithography, which would eventually enable faster, automated printing.