By | September 18, 2015

I had a minor bit of home office construction a few weeks ago—I was getting my windows upgraded to version 2.0—and the need to move the furniture around offered me the opportunity (or, more correctly, the necessity) to clean my desk. In one of the various cubbyholes I came across a souvenir from an EFI press conference at Print 13: a personalized, printed ceramic tile from EFI’s Cretaprint inkjet ceramic decoration system.

CretaprintCeramic printing and decoration has become a hot application, driven, as many things are these days, by new digital printing technologies—especially inkjet technologies—that expand the range of materials that can be printed on. In the case of ceramics, in a weird way, it was the substrate itself that played a role in the development of the system that would eventually be used to print on it.

You may recall in a previous edition of these VPRHDs (Vaguely Printing-Related Historical Digressions), we met the Wedgwood family. Ralph Wedgwood had invented the first writing system that used carbon paper, one of the side benefits of which was that the visually impaired could easily use it to write.

One of Ralph’s forebears was Josiah Wedgwood, a prominent potter and founder of the Wedgwood company. By the age of nine, Josiah had demonstrated a skill for making pottery, but a bout of smallpox left his knee too weak to operate a potter’s wheel. So, when life gives you lemons, I guess you…design the ceramic vessels in which to put lemonade, which is essentially what he did. In addition to designing pottery, he formed an alliance with one of the greatest potters of the day, Thomas Whieldon, and in 1754 they formed a business partnership. Always one to experiment, Wedgwood played around with new materials and techniques, and, in a case of being in the right place at the right time, was based near Manchester in the north of England, which was just emerging as a major industrial city. He soon created what was the first true pottery “factory” and was selling his wares to the royal family.

Speaking of industrial-scale production, Wedgwood would father eight children. His son Thomas Wedgwood grew up with a highly artistic disposition, and spent much of his time hanging around painters, sculptors, poets, and other aesthetic types. (When he inherited his father’s vast wealth, he was able to be a patron to many of them, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge.) Thomas Wedgwood never married, nor did he have any children of his own. His biographer, Richard Buckley Litchfield, notes that “neither his extant letters nor family tradition tell us of his caring for any woman outside the circle of his relations” (Litchfield, 1903).

Anyway, although he had no children of his own, Wedgwood became interested in education, and studied infants to try to understand how they processed all the information that came at them. He reasoned, not unreasonably, that babies’ primary “data collectors” were the eyes, and that thus light and images were the most important bits of information to the infant brain. This led Wedgwood to experiment with light-sensitive materials in order to capture images on paper. He thus earned a reputation among some historians as “the first photographer.” He was able to capture the images seen in a camera obscura on paper that had been rendered light-sensitive, but all he was able to capture were shadows and indistinct blurs (kind of the way I take pictures today).

The exact dates of Wedgewood’s experiments are not known, but are believed to have taken place sometime in the 1790s. Wedgwood himself, who had always been sickly, died at the age of 34.

The art and science of photography, as we all know, proceeded apace over the course of the 19th century, and was very much what we would today call a disruptive technology. It was a great boon, though, to scientists and other tinkerers who needed a way to capture processes or actions that went by too fast to see with the naked eye. The famous example of Eadweard Muybridge using a series of cameras to capture a racehorse in motion not only helped win a bet (he had been hired by Leland Stanford, the former governor of California, a businessman and race-horse owner, to prove that, as it gallops, a racehorse will at one point have all four hooves off the ground), but his series of photographs also led to the development of motion picture photography.

For our purposes here, though, the advent of photography also helped researchers in another area of study answer the question, does a water jet break up into droplets?

Some of the earliest research on drop formation was conducted by Félix Savart. Although Savart’s specialty was acoustics and sound, he also dabbled in other areas, such as water jets. Are jets of water continuous, or at some point do they break into drops? Photography wasn’t up to speed, as it were, at that time, so Savart had to improvise as best he could:

Savart was able to extract a remarkably accurate and complete picture of the actual breakup process using his naked eye alone. To this end he used a black belt, interrupted by narrow white stripes, which moved in a direction parallel to the jet. This effectively permitted a stroboscopic observation of the jet. To confirm beyond doubt the fact that the jet breaks up into drops and thus becomes discontinuous, Savart moved a “slender object” swiftly across the jet, and found that it stayed dry most of the time. Being an experienced swordsman, he undoubtedly used this weapon for his purpose (Eggers, 2003).

Am I the only one imagining a John Belushi-esque “Samurai scientist”? Probably. By the way, early attempts—such as Savart’s—to understand drop formation were missing one key element: the idea of surface tension, which was first recognized by Joseph Plateau. (Plateau, by the way, was also the first person to create the illusion of a moving image, via a device he invented in 1832 called the phenakistoscope.)

One researcher who was able to avail himself of photography to better understand how water drops form and behave was Lord Rayleigh, born John William Strutt. Rayleigh would be right to Strutt his stuff; he co-discovered argon, as well as what he called Rayleigh scattering, the phenomenon that explains why the sky is blue. And his Theory of Sound will still ring a bell with any sound engineer today.

One of the things that Rayleigh discovered, in 1878, was that

a stream of liquid droplets issuing from a nozzle can be made uniform in size and spacing by applying cyclic energy or vibrations to the droplets as they form at the nozzle orifice (Romano, 2008).

What does this remind you of? Indeed, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) pursued this line of research and in 1946 received a patent (2,512,743) for what was the very first drop-on-demand piezo inkjet device.

The further refinement of inkjet printing takes a long, circuitous route through the 20th century before it ends up where we are now, with myriad inkjet devices transforming entire industries—and, indeed printing on ceramics. Imagine what Josiah Wedgwood could have done with a Cretaprint.



“Freeze Frame: Eadweard Muybridge’s Photography of Motion,” American Museum of Natural History,

Jens Eggers, “A Brief History of Drop Formation,” School of Mathematics, University of Bristol, UK,

B. Litchfield, Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer; an account of his life, his discovery and his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, including the letters of Coleridge to the Wedgwoods and an examination of accounts of alleged earlier photographic discoveries, London: Duckworth & Co., 1903,

Frank Romano, Inkjet!, Sewickley, Pa.: PIA GATF Press, 2008.

“Félix Savart,” Wikipedia, last modified on August 21, 2015, retrieved September 9, 2015,élix_Savart.

“Josiah Wedgwood,” Wikipedia, last modified on August 30, 2015, retrieved September 9, 2015,

“Thomas Wedgwood,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 1, 2015, retrieved September 9, 2015,


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