The Alchemy of Letterpress

The Middle Ages in Europe witnessed the rise of two arcane crafts: alchemy and printing. Purportedly, the goal of alchemy was the transmutation of base metals, such as lead, into precious metals, such as gold. In their quest to discover the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, the catalyst necessary for transmutation, the alchemists used techniques for carefully boiling, distilling and purifying various animal, vegetable and mineral substances. They smelted ores to get metals such as copper, zinc, lead, tin and antimony. These techniques had been handed down from ancient Egypt to Arabia to Europe. Indeed, the Arabic term Al Chymia, later corrupted into “alchemy”, referred one way or another (scholars differ) to Egypt.

The higher goal of alchemy was the transmutation of the human soul. It was believed that this could be accomplished by following the rigorous disciplines of alchemy.

Around the time that alchemy was beginning to flourish in Europe, Gutenberg and others developed printing methods we know today as letterpress. They made ink by carefully charring bones to make charcoal. They mixed this black powder with linseed oil, which had been produced through days of boiling. Type was made from alloys of lead, tin and antimony. In short, these early printers used many of the alchemical arts. And even papermaking came to Europe via ancient Egypt.

When the modern letterpress printer sets foundry type in a composing stick, the dull gleam and the unique feel of the alloy known as type metal may remind him or her not only of the printers of 500 years ago, but of the alchemists as well. When the gears of the press whirr and the flywheel spins and the platen and bed embrace, the alchemical substances of type, ink, paper and kinetic energy collide, and when the press opens the result is more than just ink spots on paper. What was once a featureless two-dimensional plane is now a three-dimensional wonder of symbols and images. The soul of the paper has been transmutated.

For those who are skeptical toward my assertion of common ground between printing and alchemy, well, what would convince you? Turning paper into gold? Just look on the back of a dollar bill, on the left-hand side.

Jim Irwin, Printer March, 2007