Episode 6: The Chemistry of Texts

Gregor Reisch's Margarita philosophica

Gregor Reisch's Margarita philosophica. Photo by Douglas A. Lockard.

Creating ink for both the printed and handwritten page, as well as preserving it, has a long history in which chemistry plays an integral part. Some historic inks have started to destroy the pages they’re printed on. Other books and manuscripts have been damaged as a result of older conservation practices that place more emphasis on looks than historic accuracy. In this episode Glen Ruzicka, director of conservation for the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, and Ronald Brashear, director of the Othmer Library at CHF, take a tour of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library, and discuss conservation practices past and present. (You can find a recipe for iron gall ink, one of the materials discussed in the segment, here.) In our Chemistry in Your Cupboard, CHF historian Anke Timmermann explores the history of “invisible” inks. She also explains how to write secret messages at home. The Element of the Week: Copper.

Show Clock

00:00 Opening Credits
00:31 Introduction
01:22 Element of the Week: Copper
03:09 Rare book tour with Ronald Brashear and Glen Ruzicka
08:43 Chemistry in Your Cupboard: Secret Inks
10:46 Quote: Vladimir Nabokov

Resources and References

On pigments: The online exhibit Pigments Through the Ages, by Web Exhibits, specifically verdigris and emerald green. Also, Fine Art Research, Art Experts, Inc.
On conservation: Don Etherington, “Historical Background of Book Conservation: The Past Forty Years,” Collection Management 31, 1/2 (2006), 21-29.
On invisible ink: “Cold War Invisible Secrets Unlocked” from Science Daily and an informative entry on Wikipedia.


Special thanks to Anke Timmermann for researching the show.

Our theme music is composed by Dave Kaufman. Additional music was provided from the Podsafe Music Network. The music for the transition out of the Element of the Week is A Rare Breed, by Mellow Rex. The music for the end of library tour and interview is The Reader of 360 Million Books, by Shams. The music for the quotation is Prelude/Books, by Nuru Lain.

This week’s image is of Gregor Reisch’s Margarita philosophica (Freeburn, 1503). Image courtesy of the Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library at CHF. Photo by Douglas A. Lockard.


Posted In: History

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