Born on November 6, 1771 in Prague, Hohann Alois Senefelder was a German actor, playwriter who is best known for inventing lithography, the printing technique.
His real name was Aloys Johann Nepomuk Franz Senefelder. He was born in Prague, which at that time was the Imperial city of the German Nation’s Holy Roman Empire. His father was a stage actor. Alois received his early education in Munich and studied law at Ingolstadt on scholarship. The untimely death of his father forced him to leave his studies to help his mother in meeting the ends. He had eight siblings and for their upkeep, he started working as an actor, but to little success. However,Connoisseur of Girls, a play that he wrote in his early days won him much praise.
In his days of struggle, Alois did not have enough money to have his plays published and printed. The proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ has never been so relevant, as in the case of Alois Senefelder. In his bid to publish his plays, Senefelder started working at a printing office to learn printing. He then purchased a small press. With his limited means, Senefelder could not afford engraving of plates. Therefore, he started trying his hand at engraving. He began experimenting on smooth fine-grained Solnhofen limestone as printing surface. It required writing in reverse for engraving. To overcome this difficulty, Senefelder used special ink to write on a paper and then tried transferring it face down on the stone. In this way he gradually mastered this art. One day Senefelder was writing down laundry list on a piece of Solnhofen limestone with a grease pencil. He noticed the non-compatibility of water and grease. This made him wonder what if he etched the rest of the stone, leaving only the text written in grease pencil. So, he used acid to etch out the stone around the text. This paved the way for the invention of technique best known to the world as Lithography. Although, he had initially called it ‘chemical printing’ or ‘stone printing’, the technique became famous by the name of Lithography.
Lithography revolutionized the field of printing as well as that of art. Unlike earlier, when printmaking required advanced craftmanship, with lithography, the artist only had to draw on the surface with familiar color pens. Theodore Gericault, Francisco de Goya and Eugene Delacroix were among the first who honed this art. Honore Daumier, the famous French caricaturist made about 4000 designs, including newspaper caricatures and broadsides on a single sheet. In the year 1818, Senefelder published his book on the history and nature of Lithography ‘Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerei‘. Its English translation, ‘A Complete Course of Lithography ‘was published in 1819.
The invention of Lithography made printing easily accessible and affordable to masses and helped in the promotion of both print and art. The process of Lithography refined during the life span of Senefelder and he was lucky enough to see his invention bring change to the world. Pleased with his contribution, King Maximillian Joseph of Bavaria honored him with a handsome pension.
On February 26, 1834 at the age of 62, Alois Senefelder breathed his last in Munich, Germany.