The Inscrutable History of Invisible Ink

by Penn Van Isch

Invisible Ink has a long history, though it pales in comparison to that of "colored" ink or other writing systems. It was first invented by Socrates, who alas lost the formula when he wrote a grocery list — "wine, bread, hemlock" — on the seemingly blank sheet of papyrus. The secret to invisible ink disappeared from the records for centuries to come, until it was used by the famed Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci used a honey-based invisible ink to write the world's first techno thriller, Frons Code (The Brown Code), which described a futuristic plot to implant implausible secrets in otherwise ordinary religious artwork. After the manuscript was consumed by bees, however, da Vinci gave up his career in fiction writing for the paintbrushes, and invisible ink fell out of favor many years.

It wasn't until the 20th century, when the two World Wars and the rising field of espionage brought invisible ink back to light. The field of steganography — concealed writing — became one of the key tricks of fieldcraft for spies from all countries, fueled in part by the widely available guidebook The Steganosaurus. After World War Two ended and espionage methods came to light, invisible ink finally received due credit and ever since it has been duly commemorated in children's spy kits around the world.



Penn Van Isch has delivered numerous public lectures. Since his admittance to the bar, he can be found lecturing regularly at many of New York's most historic institutions such as McSorley's, Ear Inn, and Old Town.

Articles in this Issue

Introduction, by the Editors
Newspapers at Season's End: Journalism, Farming, and Other Lives, by Bob Sheasley
Images from the Liquidation of Stacey's Bookstore, by Ted Weinstein
In Memory of Ink and Journalism, by Keith Miles
Writers in a Digital Future, by Jeff Gomez
Assyriology: How the Epic of Gilgamesh Moved a City, by David Damrosch
Bibliography: Ovid's Art of Love, by Stuart Kelly
Lost This Year — In Print, by the Editors
The Inscrutable History of Invisible Ink, by Penn Van Isch