The printing press, one of the most important inventions in human history, was developed around the same time by two very different cultures separated by great distances.
Was it luck? Or a borrowed idea that went viral?
An analysis at Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory aims to shed light on this lingering mystery, by comparing the chemicals in the precious pages of two mid-15th century documents: Gutenberg’s German Bible and early texts. Korean Confucians.
“We are trying to understand the differences and similarities between early printed texts from Asia and the West,” by studying the residue left behind by wood and metal typefaces, said Mike Toth, imagery consultant for the project. .
Their findings could suggest whether the idea of movable type was conceived independently or shared between regions by ancient traders.
Fragile pages of ancient documents are on loan this week from the Korea Archives and Stanford Library, as part of an international project led by UNESCO. The results – from SLAC and other research institutes, using different approaches – will be shared at a conference next April at the Library of Congress.
Already, scientists have detected chemical differences in the documents. Are they caused by distinctive inks or fonts? This is still under investigation.
“We can see varying 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 first social media – has long been considered a turning point in our age of innovation. Previously, the written word had to be painstakingly copied by hand.
By casting three-dimensional letters in metal, coating them with ink, and pressing sheets of paper, writing was mass-produced. Information reached more people, in more places, faster.
Scholars often attribute this feat to Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany, who around AD 1440 printed copies of the Bible. Previously, the Bible was only available as a hand-copied volume in Latin, accessible only to elite members of the clergy. Gutenberg could print over 50 Bibles in about the time it took for a roomful of monks to produce a single handwritten copy.
Readers demanded to read in languages they could understand. This led to the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and other founding moments of Western civilization.
But there is growing evidence that some very early printing technologies began in East Asia, with writings by Korean Buddhists around AD 1250 – long before Gutenberg was born.
SLAC analyzes a Korean document by Confucius, which outlines influential religious philosophies on inner virtue, morality, and respect for community and its values. But because the rulers wanted their print to be used only by the nobility, it did not take hold with the vigor of Gutenberg’s work.
Did the German Gutenberg borrow the idea from East Asia?
It’s possible the printing technology spread from East to West along the Silk Road, Bergmann said.
But for now, “there is no solid 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 certain, said physicist and team member Minhal Gardesi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: “Gutenberg’s printing press caused a revolution in the way we disseminate information. And the printing press existed earlier in East Asia.
In the golden hills above Menlo Park, the work to solve this puzzle is being led by the SLAC synchrotron. In a technique called X-ray fluorescence imaging, it sends bunches of electrons hurtling down a tunnel of a particle accelerator to generate pulses of X-ray light.
The same tool unearthed ancient Greek text in a rare document by mathematician Archimedes, unreadable due to centuries of neglect and damage. He also detected chemicals in the fossilized organs of the feathered dinosaur Archeopteryx, essential anatomical information for understanding the evolutionary connection between reptiles and birds.
Scientists focus the synchrotron’s X-ray beam – just 60 microns wide, smaller than a human hair – onto a block of text on each page.
Then a computer 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. A purple letter would contain both copper and arsenic.
“So in one place on the paper, we have all of this information for every item that might be there,” Gardesi said.
The team creates two-dimensional chemical maps that contain the chemical fingerprints of ink and paper, as well as metallic residue from the printing process.
The varying chemical compositions of different documents over time could reveal how or why the technology spread.
To understand the evolution of technology, the team examines more than these two documents. It also digitizes 40 ancient religious texts from Korea, 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 narrative poem Gregorius, dated 1486; a page by German astronomer Johannes Kepler, dated 1602; and old fourteenth-century letters from Saint Catherine of Siena.
The documents are invaluable. To get to SLAC safely, the Stanford Library used a special courier service. UNESCO’s Angelica Noh carried the Korean documents in locked business class luggage.
“They’ve never been studied before, with this kind of chemical analysis,” Bergmann said. “So we’re in completely new territory here.”