Johann Nepomunk Franz Aloys Senefelder

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Johann Nepomunk Franz Aloys Senefelder


German Inventor

Though he remains an obscure figure, even among the annals of inventors, Aloys Senefelder had an enormous impact on the creation of the modern world. By inventing lithography in 1796, he made it possible for printers to mass-produce commercial images, thus influencing the spread not only of commerce, but of communication and literacy. Senefelder, who continued to improve on his invention, developed color lithography in 1826.

Senefelder was born on November 6, 1771, in Prague, now capital of the Czech Republic but then a provincial capital in the Hapsburg-controlled Austrian Empire. His family was German, and Senefelder's father worked as an actor in Prague's Theatre Royale. While Senefelder was a student at the University of Ingolstadt, his father died, and the young man tried to earn a living as an actor and writer. Failing in these endeavors, he turned to printing.

After learning the trade while working in a small printing office, Senefelder bought a press of his own and set up shop. Still striving to find a way to make money through his creative efforts, he initially intended the press as a means of publishing his plays. Since he could not afford to pay someone to engrave his printing plates for him, Senefelder decided to do the engraving himself, and went to work on a set of copper plates.

His efforts with copper met with little success, and Senefelder was at a loss for what to do when, almost by accident, he discovered the secret that would lead to his later success. One day he was writing a laundry list with a grease pencil on a piece of limestone, when suddenly he got the idea of etching away the surface around his markings, so that the lettering itself would be left in relief.

This incident occurred in 1796, and over the next two years, Senefelder conducted a number of experiments before developing a satisfactory means for flat-surface printing. In 1809 he became director of the royal printing office in Munich, capital of Bavaria. Nine years later, in 1818, he published Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey, later translated as A Complete Course in Lithography, wherein he explained the process he had created.

In later years a music publisher named Johann Anton André helped Senefelder establish a school in the town of Offenbach, where he taught the lithographic process. The printer also lived well from a pension granted by the king of Bavaria, and this gave him the freedom to undertake the experimentation that led to the development of color lithography in 1826. Printers were soon using metal plates, which were more efficient and more easily etched, but the name "lithography"—with its root word reflecting the use of stone in early plates—remained. Senefelder died on February 26, 1834, in Munich.


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Johann Nepomunk Franz Aloys Senefelder

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