The printing press, one of the most important inventions in human history, was developed at the same time by two very different cultures, separated by vast distances.
Was it fate? Or a borrowed idea, gone viral?
An analysis from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University aims to shed light on this enduring mystery by comparing chemicals in the precious pages of two mid-15th-century documents: Germany’s Gutenberg Bible and an early Korean Confucian text.
“We’re trying to understand the differences and similarities between early printed texts in Asia and the West,” said Mike Toth, the project’s imaging consultant.
Their findings may reveal whether the idea of movable type was independently conceived, or shared between regions by ancient traders.
In an international project led by UNESCO, the fragile pages of ancient documents are on loan this week from the archives of Korea and the Stanford Library. The findings — from SLAC and other research institutions, using a variety of methods — will be shared at a conference at the Library of Congress next April.
Already, scientists have detected chemical differences in the documents. Are they due to specific inks or typefaces? It is still under investigation.
“We can see different concentrations,” said Stanford physicist Uwe Bergmann. “Sometimes there’s a little more copper, sometimes a little more zinc, sometimes a little more lead.”
The invention of the printing press—the original social media—has long been considered an inflection point in our age of innovation. Earlier the written word had to be painstakingly copied by hand.
Writing was mass-produced by casting three-dimensional letters into metal, coating them in ink, and pressing sheets of paper. Information reached more people, more places, more quickly.
Scholars often credit this feat to Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, who printed copies of the Bible around 1440 AD. Previously, the Bible was only available as hand-copied volumes in Latin, accessible only to members of the clergy elite. Gutenberg could print more than 50 Bibles in about the time it would take a room full of monks to produce a single handwritten copy.
Readers demanded to be read in languages they could understand. It led to the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and other seminal moments in Western civilization.
But there is emerging evidence that some very early printing technology began in East Asia, beginning with the writings of Korean Buddhists around 1250 AD – even before the birth of Gutenberg. long ago.
SLAC is analyzing a Korean Confucian document, which describes the influential religious philosophy of inner virtue, morality, and respect for community and its values. But because the rulers wanted their printing to be used only by the nobility, it did not catch the enthusiasm of Gutenberg’s work.
Did Germany’s Gutenberg take this idea from East Asia?
Bergman said it is possible that printing technology spread from East to West, along the Silk Route.
But so far, “there’s no strong evidence one way or the other,” he said. SLAC’s scientific findings will be incorporated into ongoing historical and literary research.
Only two things are known for sure: “Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized the way information was disseminated,” said Minhal Gurdzi, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a member of the team. I was there.
In the golden hills above Menlo Park, solving this puzzle is done by SLAC’s synchrotron. In a technique called X-ray fluorescent imaging, it sends bunches of electrons hurtling down the tunnel of a particle accelerator to produce pulses of X-ray light.
The same tool has brought ancient Greek texts to a rare document by the mathematician Archimedes, illegible due to centuries of neglect and damage. He also detected chemicals inside fossilized limbs of the feathered dinosaur Archeopteryx, physiological information important to understanding the evolutionary relationship between reptiles and birds.
The scientists focused the synchrotron’s X-ray beam – just 60 microns wide, smaller than a human hair – onto one block of text on each page.
A computer then converts the X-ray patterns into a color spectrum, with different shades representing each chemical — green for zinc, blue for copper and red for arsenic, for example. Purple letter contains both copper and arsenic.
“So in one place on paper, we have all this information for every single element,” Gardizi said.
The different chemical compositions of different documents can, over time, reveal how and why technology may have spread.
To understand the evolution of the technology, the team is looking at more than just these two documents. It is scanning 40 early Korean religious texts as well as other Western documents, such as a page from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s. A document of the German epic poem Gregorius, dated 1486; A page from the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, dated 1602; and the 14th-century epistles of St. Catherine of Siena.
Documents are invaluable. To receive SLAC safely, the Stanford Library has created a special courier service list. UNESCO’s Angelica Noh placed Korean documents in locked luggage, flying business class.
They had never been studied before with this type of chemical analysis, Bergman said. “So we’re in completely new territory here.”