Way Black When: The Power of the Color That’s the Absence of all Colors

The word black can certainly be considered old, as it comes from the Old English blaec (“dark”), the Old Saxon blak (“ink”) and the Old High German blach, just to name a few. The ancient Romans, however, started it all with the word ater, to describe something flat and dull. Much like Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher.

  • Black ink is nearly as old as the word itself. Chinese inks made of plants, minerals and animal bones can be traced to the 23rd century B.C.
  • It was also among the first and most popular colors used in art. The earliest examples were found in Neolithic cave paintings in Western Asia, dating back as far as 10,200 B.C. In French caverns, depictions of animals were believed to have been drawn more than 17,000 years ago.
  • Due to its readability on white paper, black has been the most common color used in print. The best example was the first example—the 1455 printing of Gutenberg’s Bible. Because most inks of the time were water-based, Gutenberg created an ink that wasn’t an ink at all, but rather a varnish. Guten to know.
  • Speaking of readability, in the early days of computers we got green type on a black background. But when research showed reading improved by 26% with black type on a white background, computer companies saw the light and rebooted.
  • For centuries nobility and the elite enjoyed wearing clothing dyed purple, blue or red, primarily because the ingredients were hard to come by and thus priced out of range for the masses. When a new high-end black dye was introduced in the 14th century (along with new laws that gave the wealthy exclusive access to it) monarchs and the moneyed began flaunting their self-importance by dressing in black.
  • Black is undoubtedly one of our most contradictive colors, with representations that are literally black and white.
    • For ancient Egyptians, it was the color of both fertility and the underworld.
    • At the height of fashion in ancient Rome, it was the go-to color for artisans and clergymen as well as for those in mourning. Collective fashion trends that have carried well into modern times.
    • More than 5,000 years ago in ancient Greece, it was the primary color not only for decorative pottery and art, but for the most lurid of sinners.

  • Equally contradictive is the perception of the black cat. In Scotland, England and Japan, the presence of a coal-colored kitty signifies good luck and fortune. Some cultures still believe a woman with a black cat as a pet is more attractive and will have many suitors. But in many parts of the world (including ours), they’re seen as a bad omen and nothing but trouble. In America’s infancy, the Pennsylvania Pilgrims suspected witches possessed the power to morph into a cat. And by that irrational rationale, they assumed cats possessed the same evil, supernatural powers. Despite the silliness of these superstitions, today black cats are by far the least adopted from American animal shelters.

  • In the military, black was usually up to no good. In 1919, the Voluntary Militia for National Security formed as a paramilitary offshoot of Italy’s Fascist Party. Named for their menacing uniforms, the Blackshirts implemented violence and intimidation against socialists, or anyone else who dared oppose their fearless leader, Benito Mussolini. The same goes for black ops. Formed and financed in secrecy, a black operation carried out covert (and often dangerous or illegal) assignments for unnamed government agencies. A favorite theme in literature and film, they’ve been featured in flicks from Apocalypse Now to Zero Dark Thirty. Though we can’t get anyone to officially verify that.
  • The Model T was America’s first affordable car and redefined American transportation in the early 20th century. It was also the first automobile to be mass-produced on moving assembly lines, reducing production time from more than 12 hours to around 93 minutes. A major part of Henry Ford’s speedy success was reducing the number of color options to one, which prompted Mr. Ford to guarantee that “any customer can have his car painted any color he wants...as long as it’s black.”
  • In 2014, scientists at UK’s Surrey NanoSystems dazzled the world when they created Vantablack and claimed it to be the world’s blackest shade of black. Scientists believe Vantablack could be used to hide stealth satellites or vastly improve a telescope’s capability. But because it can only be grown in their labs, it’s one of the most expensive materials on earth, and save for one sculptor who acquired exclusive rights to use it in an artistic capacity, is currently unavailable for any kind of product manufacturing or scientific application.
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