Newton’s Papers: To Make Excellent Ink

Devan Taylor
May 10 · 5 min read

How to make your own ink, according to Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton portrait 1689 (Wikimedia Commons).

It’s the 18th century and you’ve got some world-changing ideas just itching to be written down. But, how do you do it? You’ve managed to get a hold of some journals but what about the ink? You could purchase it from someone who makes it, but like everything else he did, Newton fancied making his own. He seems to have been good at it as well, as his journals are still easily read in the present day.

The University of Cambridge features many of Newton’s work in their online digital library. One of their collections that you can read for yourself is Newton’s laboratory notebook. It dates from 1669–1693, and inside you’ll find roughly 350 pages of handwritten notes on various topics from the natural philosopher himself. There’s something very special about reading the thoughts of such an iconic man of science in his own handwriting, so I highly recommend interested readers check it out. Among said notes is a recipe for “excellent” ink on page 23 (image 29/357). Below is a transcript of said notes.

To Make Excellent Ink

“℞ 1/2 lb of Galls cut in pieces or grosly Beaten, 1/4 lb of Gumm Arabick cut or broken. Put ’em into a Quart of strong Beer or Ale. Let ’em stand a month stopt up, stirring them now + then. At ye, end of the month put in ℥1 or ℥1 1/2 of copperas (too much copperas makes ye ink apt to turn yellow.) Stir it + use it. Stop it up for some time with a paper prickd full of holes + let it stand in ye sunn. When you take out ink put in so much strong Beer + it will endure many years. Water makes it apt to mold. Wine does not. The air also if it stand open inclines it to mold. With this Ink new made I wrote this.” — Isaac Newton (To Make Excellent Ink)

Since the recipe was written in the 1600s, the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are a bit off from the way we currently write. Although most of the recipe remains easy to understand, there are a few things that could use clarification.

You’ve probably seen the ℞ symbol, also written as “Rx,” on bottles of medicine. In that context, the symbol is often used to mean “medical prescription,” but the symbol didn’t take on said meaning until the 20th century. It originally comes from the Latin word “recipe,” or “recipere,” and was used as a verb for “to take.” When Newton uses it in the first sentence of the recipe, he is telling the reader to “take 1/2 lb of Galls cut in pieces or grosly Beaten.” In other words, collect 1/2 lb of galls that have been cut or broken into pieces.

Oak galls. Photo by siala (Pixabay).

Galls

Galls are tumor-like growths that occur on plants due to some form of irritation. They may be caused by infections due to bacteria or fungi, or commonly via insects depositing eggs into the plant. Gall wasps have developed a system by which they deposit their larvae into a plant, particularly oak trees, and secrete chemicals designed to trick the plant into growing around the larvae. This creates a gall and provides nutrients and protection for the larvae as it transforms into an adult wasp. Once the wasp has grown to adulthood, it burrows out of the gall, leaving a small hole.

Galls are useful in creating ink, commonly referred to as “iron gall ink,” because they contain tannic acid. When crushed and mixed with water and iron sulfate, it creates a dark black color. In Newton’s recipe, he recommends using strong beer, ale, or wine instead of water to prevent the ink from molding over time.

Iron pyrite (fool’s gold) (Wikimedia Commons).

Copperas

Copperas refers to crystals of hydrated iron sulfate created by the weathering of iron pyrites (A.K.A. fool’s gold). Newton uses “℥” in reference to the amount of copperas, an apothecary symbol meaning ounce (the unit of weight). He warns that adding in too much can cause the ink to turn yellow.

Arabic gum. Photo by montemari (Pixabay).

Gumm Arabick

Gumm Arabick is a different spelling of gum Arabic, or Arabic gum. It comes from the hardened sap of acacia trees and has a variety of uses, but is most commonly used in the food industry as a stabilizer, coating agent, or emulsifier. In his recipe, Newton uses it to make the ink more viscous.

The Recipe

  • 1/2 lb of galls
  • 1/4 lb of Arabic gum
  • 1 qt of strong beer, ale, or wine + extra for topping off
  • 1–1 1/2 ounces of Iron sulfate
  • 1 container for ink
  • Some paper
  1. Cut or break the galls into pieces and combine them with the Arabic gum, also cut or broken into small pieces, and 1 qt of beer, ale, or wine in a container.
  2. Let the mixture stand covered for a month, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add the iron sulfate and stir. The ink is now ready to use. Cover the ink container with paper which has holes poked in it. Store in an area with sunlight. Too much iron sulfate may cause the ink to turn yellow.
  4. As you remove ink for use, fill the container with the same amount of the beer, ale, or wine from step 1.

Other Notes:

  • Newton uses the word “ye” to mean “the” or “your.” He writes the word differently at different spots in the recipe. Sometimes it is spelled as “ye,” other times “yE,” and sometimes the “e” or “E” is superscripted.
  • Newton uses the “+” symbol as shorthand for “and.”
  • Other spelling variations: “sunn” = “sun,” “grosly” = “grossly,” “stopt” = “stopped.”

This article is dedicated to David Andrew Taylor.

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