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(this section is a shortened version of "Electricity, Light and the Printed Image" a paper given at 'Jornadas de Grabado no toxico" organised by the University of Barcelona in 2004.)

A SHORT HISTORY OF ELECTROLYTIC PRINTMAKING

the discovery of galvanism and electrolysis

Galvanism, or chemically produced electricity, was accidentally discovered by Luigi Galvani in 1789 who was doing experiments on frog's legs and found that muscles twitched when touched by two different metals in contact, a phenomenon he attributed to a fluid in organic tissue. Soon after that Alexandre Volta showed that it was due to a direct electric current, and built a 'galvanic battery' formed by alternating zinc and copper plates separated by fabric soaked in an acidic solution (5). In 1834 Michael Faraday postulated his Laws of Electrolysis (6). Smee and Daniell invented improved versions of galvanic cells, using zinc and copper plates suspended in copper sulphate and sulphuric acid, and Thomas Spencer found that copper was deposited on the cathode or 'negative metal', and that the zinc pole was etched. He and John Wilson were granted a patent in 1840 for "Engraving Metals by Voltaic Electricity" (see Appendix B for text of patent). Spencer continued research into electro-deposition and reproduction of engraved printing plates (22). This was also utilized to reproduce seals and plate small objects by the process that became known as 'Electrotyping'.

It was found that applying a direct current from a galvanic cell to a separate 'cell' containing a couple of parallel metal plates in a metallic salt solution (the electrolyte) dissolved metal from the anode (+ve) and deposited metal on the cathode (-ve). This is explained by the fact that an electrolyte, consisting of positive and negative 'ions' will conduct a direct electrical current, which carries the ions to the plate of the opposite polarity. In a copper sulphate solution the positive copper ions collect on the negative copper plate, and negative sulphate ions react with the bare metal of the copper anode - oxidize or etch it in fact - and create new copper sulphate. Thus the electrolyte stays at the same concentration, creating the illusion that copper particles are transferred from one plate to the other - a common fallacy..
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Electrotype, Electro-Etching and Galvanography

The process of electrotyping become very widely used for creating printing plates, plating metal objects, decorating silverware and marking cutlery. In 1852 Charles V Walker documented and described all the processes that were currently known in his book Electrotype Manipulation, which went through 29 editions by 1859 and was also published in the USA (7).. Part II included detailed descriptions of Spencer and Wilson's patented process which he called called 'Electro-Etching', and another called 'Electro-tint' (see Appendix A for excerpts). In a series of articles in The Photographic News in 1882, Major J Waterhouse describes "Electric Etching" briefly. R S Chattock describes the process of electro-etching much more fully in his book Practical Notes on Etching published in 1886 specifically for artists (8). The word 'Galvanography' became synonymous with 'Electrotyping', basically meaning a plate made by depositing metal over a mould, a process which is called 'galvanoplasty', but other processes of etching or plating, which used the same electrolytic principles and equipment were included in the original meaning. The term 'Galvanography' was used to distinguish the graphic use of the Electrotyping process from the industrial use or the production of text type plates..
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electrolytic methods for printing photographs

After the invention of photography in 1839, there was international competition to find ways of making permanent ink prints of photographs, and many of the methods used electrolytic processes in one way or another. The earliest attempts, by Alfred Donne in 1839, and Joseph Berres in 1840 started with a daguerreotype, which was a photograph on a silvered copper plate, which was plated and then etched (8). But the Austrian, Paul Pretsch took a different approach and patented a process called 'photo-galvanography', in which he began with a photographically exposed dichromated-gelatine mould which was made to reticulate, from which he produced a copper intaglio plate by galvanoplasty. He formed a company in London to produce the first commercially printed photographs called "Photographic Art Treasures" in 1856 (9).
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The indisputable ‘inventor’ of photography, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, like many extraordinary men of that period, was interested in a wide range of subjects, and he began his photographic researches in 1816 from a background in lithography. He compensated for his lack of talent as a draughtsman. by using a camera obscura and was obsessed with the idea of being able to fix the images he obtained in it. Niépce had his first success in 1822 with bitumen of Judea mixed with oil of lavender, exposed for several hours under an engraving which was oiled to make it transparent. The areas not exposed to light could be washed away with turpentine and oil of lavender, and the dark areas etched in acid. In 1826 he produced a pewter printing plate of the Cardinal d’Amboise - the first successful attempt at photomechanical reproduction.
niepce aThe first real photograph taken from his window in 1826, by Niépce. A prepared pewter plate in his camera obscura was exposed for 8 hours, washed and etched. Daguerre, in partnership with Niépce’s cousin, discovered a method of fixing an image onto a silvered copper plate in 1835.

After the invention of photography, there was international competition to find ways of making permanent ink prints of hotographs, and many of the methods used electrolytic processes in one way or another. The earliest attempts, by Alfred Donne in 1839, and Joseph Berres in 1840 started with a daguerreotype, which was a photograph on a silvered copper plate, which was plated and then etched (8). From then on, there was international competition to find ways of making permanent ink prints of photographs, and many of the methods used electrolytic processes in one way or another. At that time there was an acknowledged need for an easier way of producing high quality reproductions of works of art, original works or popular views to illustrate books, which up to then required the making of steel engravings, each of which could take up to a year to produce. Printed photographs were perceived as the solution and the competition was later stimulated by a prize of 2000 francs offered by the Duc de Luynes in 1856 for the best method of photomechanical printing.. One of the most talented early experimenters, was the painter and photographer Charles Negre who took up the methods originated by Niepce and his cousin, and elaborated them by introducing an electrolytic step, plating the partly developed steel plate with gold to protect the half tones, then aquatinting it and etching it in nitric acid. He received a French patent in 1856 and was a finalist in the Duc de uynes competition (8).
fizeau l Print from a photographic printing plate produced from a daguerreotype by Hippolyte Fizeau in 1843

Hippolyte Louis Fizeau developed probably the most successful method, patenting it in 1843 [13]. He boiled the daguerreotype in potassium hydroxide to strengthen the resist dots, lightly etched it in nitric acid and then wiped it with heavy linseed oil, as if for printing in intaglio. Then he electroplated it with gold, which was deposited only on the highlights not protected by oil. He removed the oil and etched it again to strengthen it so that many prints could be pulled [4]. The plates required some hand retouching, and the results were impressive despite difficulties in achieving good half-tones, but the method was too complicated and expensive to catch on.

But the Austrian, Paul Pretsch took a different approach and patented a process called 'photo-galvanography'', in which he began with a photographically exposed dichromated-gelatine mould which was made to reticulate, from which he produced a copper intaglio plate by galvanoplasty. He formed a company in London to produce the first commercially printed photographs called "Photographic Art Treasures" in 1856 (9).
Alphonse Poitevin, aware of the pioneering work of Pretsch on the reticulation of gelatine, filed a number of patents in 1855 for a very similar process, substituting a plaster of Paris mould for the gutta percha. But he turned his attention to the behaviour of dichromated albumen exposed to light on a lithographic stone, and it is with this method that he won the prize for photomechanical printing offered by the Duc de Luynes in 1867.

Photograph reproduced on the title page of "Photographic Art Treasures" published by the photo-galvanographic company of Paul Pretsch in 1856. The earliest printed photographic reproductions in England.
 

The French name for the Electrotype plate-making process is 'galvanotypie' and a plate made by the process was called a 'galvano'. The process was much used in France for intaglio plate-making in the nineteenth century, particularly by the firm of Goupil & Cie, publishers of Fine Art reproductions. They used a process between photogravure and Pretsch's photo-galvanography, but kept the exact process a closely guarded secret (11). British Early Ordnance Survey Map plates were produced by special application of galvanography. In Sheffield, a process of thick silver plating over copper warewas developed and called "Sheffield Plate".

the 20th century

In the twentieth century, S W Hayter described the electrolytic process of depositing metal into lines drawn through a ground on a metal plate, and probably used it at Atelier17 (12). In industry electrolytic processes were used very widely, mainly for plating and protecting metal. Anodising was developed as a process for protecting aluminium. In 1943 a US company called Lectroetch adapted the Electro-Etching process to marking metals of all kinds, and is still supplying equipment and materials for the purpose. Many other companies have started to provide the same service, and electro-etching became well enough known for artists who were interested to learn about it.

In Canada Nik Semenoff and Christine Christos carried out research into electro-etching in 1989, and published a paper in Leonardo, an art journal in 1991, detailing the method for artists, the equipment required, its advantages regarding safety. (19). In Sweden Ole Larsen developed some electrolytic processes, and one that he called "Polytype" was in essence the same as the "Electro-Tint" process described by Charles V. Walker in his 1855 book (7). (................)

For historical and personal reasons, I prefer the original etymology, and the prefix "galv" used in "galvanography". I use the name 'galv-etch' , and galv-on for applications in which the plate is etched, and for consistency, other names using the prefix 'galv-', like galv-tone, galv-plate, or galv-type, which will be used throughout this booklet. The names therefore can be used freely, as can the 1850's name 'electro-etching'. .
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e Commercial electrotyping and block making plant<: 1 - cleaning tank; 2 - rectifier; 3 - control unit; 4 - electroplating tank; 5 - anode rod; 6 - plate rod (cathode) (from the Oxford-Duden Pictorial Dictionary).

 

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©: May 11, 2015