I am often amazed at how neat figures in old scientific publications are. How did authors prepare those plots and diagrams, when there were no computers around? Did they draw them by hand? Were there any special methods and tools involved? Did the authors prepare the figures themselves?

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    Re: methods and tools, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_drawing_tools is an interesting read
    – ff524
    Jun 17, 2014 at 22:20
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    The existing answers about ink presumably are valid as far back as we had photo reproduction techniques. Before that, I suppose someone had to engrave a metal printing plate. Jun 17, 2014 at 22:48
  • Many old images are called woodcuts. Therefore they were presumably cut out of wood and used in the press.
    – McGafter
    Jun 18, 2014 at 12:58

5 Answers 5


Ink on vellum. Depending on the work place the author may have made their figures themselves or in some cases professionals were involved who would take a sketch and draw an ink original. the techniques were basically the same as for any technical drawing using templates for creating text. A lot of techniques went into making nice figures, sometimes including adhesive rasters to create shading effects etc. A asic technique was also to produce originals is a larger size than final so that when reduced in size, small imperfections would basically dissappear in print.

  • The professionals, were they employed solely for scientific works?
    – adipro
    Jun 17, 2014 at 22:25
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    The professionals would probably have been employed by the graphic arts department, which would have been used for whatever graphics were needed. For large businesses or universities which needed both scientific and non-scientific works, my guess is that some professionals would have specialized in scientific art. Jun 17, 2014 at 23:01
  • Also, how did they reduce the size of the originals?
    – adipro
    Jun 18, 2014 at 10:21
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    @adipro The printing process most likely to have been used (offset lithography), at the time, involved photographing the original and then projecting the negative onto a "plate" along with everything else that would go on that page. The projection step allows the printer to arbitrarily adjust the size. (Nowadays plates can be exposed directly from computer files but I am under the impression that photography is still used at least some of the time.)
    – zwol
    Jun 18, 2014 at 13:32
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    @adipro No, before photography there were pantographs and scaling grids. But photography makes it a lot easier.
    – zwol
    Jun 18, 2014 at 14:17

I believe many of them did the drawing themselves with ink pen, for example. Graphs can be drawn using pins and a metal ruler: you put pins (or small nails) in a measured points of a graph, and then bend a ruler to pass through all nails. The ruler will eventually form a curve, known as a B-spline interpolant of a given set of points.

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    This is one of many techniques taught to draughtsman (draughtspersons?). In my father's day drafting was a basic skill for a scientist, and though I could see the CAD world coming I learned it myself, and I have never regretted it. I only use those skills every year or two, but they still have the uses. Jun 18, 2014 at 3:00
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    Calvin Schmid's Handbook of Graphic Presentation has a very detailed chapter with many nice illustrations on this process.
    – Andy W
    Jun 18, 2014 at 12:18

My grandfather wrote geography books. He had some sheets of plastic with wavy lines on them, used to fill in the seas in maps. The plastic was cut to shape and glued to the paper. I assume similar things existed for other regular fills.


Gosh, I feel ancient :)

I graduated just before the Windows became popular. We had 8-bit PCs with MS-DOS and some very basic text-processing software. All the official documents (including my master’s thesis and first research papers) were typed on mechanical (or if one was lucky – on electrical) typewriter. For corrections in the typed document we used a special white fluid (applied it with a little brush over the misspelled letters and once dry retyped the correct ones on top).

All the formulas and figures had to be drawn by hand (using a special ink pen, a ruler, a compass, sometimes a special curved ruler). A piece of grid paper could be glued to the document if necessary, or if the grid was big enough to occupy a whole A4 page, we would buy a ready-made grid page from the university bookshop and insert it where it belonged.

This was the required format for conference papers and all other materials we submitted to the print shop, where they used offset lithography and some other techniques to print conference proceedings, textbooks, etc.

There wasn’t PowerPoint, so the “slides” for presentations were drawn on a big cardboard sheets (A1 or A0), which were then hang/stack/pined to the wall/blackboard. Or, if there was an overhead projector, we did the drawings on transparent plastic sheets.

There was a technician in the department, whose job was to do technical drawings, but usually she was very busy, so I did most of the drawings myself. And, yes, I had studied technical drawing as a part of my engineering degree, it was a mandatory module.


A related subject: preparation of mathematical formulas and equations. These were things that simply couldn't be done (other than very crudely) on a Linotype or similar "hot type" machine. To do it anywhere near "right", skilled typesetters needed to build up the equations by hand from tiny pieces of type and lots of pieces of spacer lead and such. Needless to say, this was very slow and very expensive and prone to error. It went "offshore" to lower wage countries, but even then was still too expensive. Crude typesetting programs existed but produced such poor results that Donald Knuth was driven to produce something that would typeset math to his standards: TeX. TeX (and LaTeX and various permutations) are still the gold standard for setting text, equations, and even some graphs and other figures (such as chemical diagrams) generated on the fly.

  • You will notice I said "A related subject". The typesetting of math is closely related, and leads into the automatic generation of some graphs and other figures from tabular data. Don't be so quick to condemn!
    – Phil Perry
    Jun 19, 2014 at 13:27
  • the comment was automatically generated after reviewing your answer. Nevertheless, you don't really answer the question, you just explain the motivation why TeX was created, which happened after computers, while the question explicitly asks how they did before computers.
    – user102
    Jun 19, 2014 at 13:34
  • That would be an interesting comment to the question, but this is not really an answer.
    – user102
    Jun 19, 2014 at 13:35

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