Photo Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Technical drawings of architectural or engineering designs always seem to consist of white images and text on blue paper. Why?

It’s because of how those documents are made. The blueprinting process was developed in the mid-1800s, when scientists discovered that ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide created a photosensitive solution that could be used for reproducing documents.

The process goes like this: Someone creates a drawing on translucent tracing paper or cloth. The drawing is placed over a piece of blueprinting paper, which has been coated with a mix of ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide from an aqueous solution and dried. When the two papers are exposed to a bright light, the two chemicals react to form an insoluble blue compound called blue ferric ferrocyanide (also known as Prussian Blue), except where the blueprinting paper was covered, and the light blocked, by the lines of the original drawing. After the paper is washed and dried to keep those lines from exposing, you’re left with a negative image of white (or whatever color the blueprint paper originally was) against a dark blue background.

The technique was faster and more cost-effective than hand-tracing original documents, and caught on as an easy, inexpensive way to reproduce drawings and texts. After carbon copying and copier machines took on that job for smaller documents, architects, engineers and shipwrights continued to use blueprinting to copy their large-scale drawings. More recently, the diazo whiteprint process and large-format xerographic photocopiers have largely replaced blueprinting even for these specialized purposes, and many “blueprints” are now black or grey lines on a white background. Xerograph just doesn't have the same ring as blueprint for a shorthand description for a master plan, though.