Benjamin Franklin Papers

“My Ink with a Little Loaf Sugar,” 11 July 1781

“My Ink with a Little Loaf Sugar”

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At first glance this document makes little sense: what looks like a title line, written in a large hand and dated to the hour, is centered above two stanzas that have nothing to do with either the title or one another. Both verses are taken from the works of Joseph Addison, and the misquotations suggest that they were written from memory. Indeed, the poetry in this case was merely a vehicle for the medium. On this sheet, Franklin was conducting an experiment with writing ink, and we conjecture that he was trying to duplicate the copying ink that James Watt had patented for use with his copy presses.

From the time that James Woodmason first solicited Franklin’s subscription for Watt’s new copy presses,8 Franklin seems to have recognized what Watt knew very well: the inventor’s achievement lay not with the machine (which was a typical press), but with the procedure.9 Franklin told Woodmason that he would order three presses because of his desire to “encourage Ingenuity,” but let the stationer know that he was not intending to keep one for himself. In fact, he continued, he had already produced some copies without any special equipment, and enclosed one. Woodmason replied that Franklin’s copy would not “stand any time,” whereas “ours will stand as long as the original.”1 This, indeed, was the critical problem that Watt believed he had solved: devising an ink which, when moistened and forced into a second sheet, would remain legible over time.2

The three copy presses arrived at Passy in February, 1781. Despite his earlier statement, Franklin did keep one for his office; he also offered one to Congress. When he got word from Samuel Huntington that he should send a copying machine to Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson, he had his own copy press duplicated by a Parisian carpenter.3

Finding local sources for the copy press accessories was very much on Franklin’s mind in the summer of 1781. He had ordered more copying paper, ink powder, oiled paper, and wetting and drying books from Woodmason in May, which arrived in July with a Mr. Laurent.4 In early August Temple told Jonathan Williams, Jr., that they had found a French paper (papier de soie) that worked just as well as the English copying paper, and he was sending a ream.5 It seems reasonable that Franklin was trying to devise an ink recipe that would free him from having to rely on shipments from London of Watt’s “Patent Copying Powder.”

Was loaf sugar, the subject of the present document’s experiment, Watt’s secret ingredient? Not according to his patent, dated February 4, 1780, which reveals his formula to be a combination of Aleppo galls, green copperas, gum arabic, and roach alum.6 But Watt did try adding sugar before he settled on his final recipe, having observed that both sugar and gum helped tannin ink to offset.7 This was evidently not a new observation, and the fact that Franklin was adding sugar to French encre ordinaire (also a gall-based ink), shows that he was reasoning along the same lines.8

Whether Franklin was pleased with the results of this experiment is not known; we have found no other references in his papers to copying ink, nor any allusions (other than the press copies themselves) to the process. But the order Franklin submitted to Woodmason for copying ink and paper in May, 1781, seems to be the last such invoice for personal use that survives. His final order, of October 5, 1781, was for three complete sets of copying supplies that Franklin intended to ship to Congress along with the presses that he was having built in Paris.9

When Watt’s patent expired, his secrets were revealed to the world. The text of that patent, as well as the plate which we reproduced in volume 33, was published in the inaugural volume of The Repertory of Arts and Manufactures: consisting of Original Communications, Specifications of Patent Inventions, and Selections of Useful Practical Papers from the Transactions of Philosophical Societies of All Nations, &c. &c. (London, 1794). In time, because of the proliferation of copy presses in the nineteenth century, Watt’s ink recipe came to be commonly reprinted without attribution. Colin Mackenzie’s immensely popular Five Thousand Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts reproduced it verbatim under the heading, “A Fine Black Ink, for Common Purposes, and for the Copying Press.”1 Mackenzie also included the following instructions, showing that Franklin’s idea survived as a viable alternative to Watt’s ink for decades.

Substitute for Copying Machines

In the common ink used, dissolve lump sugar (one dracham to one ounce of ink). Moisten the copying paper, and then put it in soft cap paper to absorb the superfluous moisture.— Put the moistened paper on the writing, place both between some soft paper, and either put the whole in the folds of a carpet, or roll upon a roller three or four times.2

July 11. 1781—at Noon3

My Ink with a little Loaf Sugar

So the pure limpid Stream &c

So when some Angel, by divine Command,

With rising Tempests shakes a guilty Land,

(Such as of late o’er pale Britannia past)

Calm and serene he drives the furious Blast,

And, pleas’d th’ Almighty’s Orders to perform,

Rides in the Whirlwind, and directs the Storm.4

The same Ink without Sugar.

It must be so.— Plato, thou reason’st well.

Else whence this pleasing Hope, this fond Desire,

This Longing after an Eternity. Or whence this secret Dread,

Of falling into Nought. Why shrinks the Soul

Back on her self, and startles at Destruction.

’Tis the Divinity that stirs within us;

’Tis Heav’n itself that points out an Hereafter, &c5

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

8Woodmason’s letter has not survived but BF’s answer of July 25, 1780, quoted here, and our headnote on the copy press are in XXXIII, 115–18.

9Watt’s prospectus announced that he would wait until one thousand subscriptions were received before filling any of the orders. The reason for this, he explained to a friend, was because “the thing is so simple and easy that after divulging it to a number we might lose the rest”: Watt to Joseph Black, Dec. 2, 1779, published in Eric Robinson and Douglas McKie, eds., Partners in Science: Letters of James Watt and Joseph Black (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), p. 73.

1XXXIII, 286.

2H.W. Dickinson, James Watt, Craftsman & Engineer (Cambridge, 1936), pp. 115–17; Robinson and McKie, eds., Partners in Science, passim.

3Huntington requested the machine on June 19, above; it was nearly finished when BF answered on Sept. 13, below. The press may have been made by L’Escop, who later billed BF for three copy presses to be sent to Congress (Jan. 9, 1782, APS).

4WTF to Woodmason, May 14 and July 17 (APS). On July 22, BF paid Laurent “for his Trouble in bringing the Paper, Ink Powder, &ca., from London, & the Expences thereon”: Account XXIII (XXIX, 3).

5WTF to JW, Aug. 4, APS.

6The Repertory of Arts and Manufactures … (London, 1794), p. 18.

7The problem with sugar, Watt wrote James Black, was that it “thickens the ink and causes diffusion in the Copy[,] besides that if much is added, the ink almost wholy leaves the original”: Partners in Science, p. 99. See also Dickinson, James Watt, Craftsman & Engineer, pp. 115–16.

8Sugar was added to gall-based ink (as well as to lampblack ink, the other variety) in both ancient cultures and in early modern Europe. One English recipe for gall ink from 1727 calling for “loafe sugar” is quoted in David N. Carvalho, Forty Centuries of Ink (New York, 1904; reprinted New York, 1971), p. 193. See also Monique Zerdoun Bat-Yehouda, Les Encres noires au moyen âge (jusqu’à 1600) (Paris, 1983), pp 111, 125, 139.

9WTF to Woodmason, Oct. 5, 1781 (APS). L’Escop, who made the presses (as we mentioned above), was paid by order of Ferdinand Grand. The entries in Grand’s Accounts (Account XXVII, XXXII, 4) for the payments to Woodmason (Jan. 16, 1782) and to l’Escop (Jan. 10, 1782) specify that the goods were for Congress.

1Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts (London, 1823), p. 193.

2Ibid., p. 197.

3BF’s precision in dating is another clue, we believe, to the fact that he intended to keep this sheet as evidence of his ink’s behavior over time. Inks reacted differently with fluctuations of temperature and humidity. An examination of this manuscript in 1997 did not reveal any appreciable difference in color or intensity.

4Joseph Addison, “The Campaign,” lines 287–92. BF had received a letter nine months earlier quoting the last line: XXXIII, 420.

5Addison, Cato, Act V, scene 1, lines 1–8. BF’s third and fourth lines are misquoted. They are actually three lines in the original, and should read: “This longing after immortality? / Or whence this secret dread, and inward horror, / Of falling into nought? why shrinks the soul.”

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