In 15th century Germany, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press, a machine that allowed the mass production of texts. It is considered by many to be one of the most important technological advancements of the last millennium.
Although Gutenberg is often credited as the inventor of the printing press, some time before, about 5,000 miles away, the Koreans had already developed a printing press with movable type.
There is no doubt that the East Asians were the first. There is also no doubt that Gutenberg’s invention in Europe had a far greater impact.
“What is not known is whether Gutenberg was aware of the Korean impression or not. the University of Wisconsin-Madison which, along with UW-Madison physics graduate student Minhal Gardei, is part of a large interdisciplinary team that analyzes historical texts.
He adds, “But even if we don’t, we can learn a lot about early printing methods, and that will already be a great insight.”
These texts include pages from a Gutenberg bible and texts from Confucius and they help to investigate these questions. The team includes 15th century Korean text experts, Gutenberg experts, paper experts, ink experts and many more.
How did two physicists end up participating in a seemingly very non-physical cultural heritage project? Bergmann had previously worked on other analyzes of historical texts, where he pioneered the application of a technique known as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging.
In XRF imaging, a powerful machine called a synchrotron sends an intense, very small beam of X-rays – about the diameter of a human hair – onto a page of text at a 45 degree angle. The beam excites the electrons in the atoms that make up the text, requiring another electron to fill the space left by the first (all matter is made up of atoms, which contain even smaller components called electrons).
The second electron loses energy in the process, and this energy is released as a small flash of light. A detector placed strategically nearby captures this light, or its X-ray fluorescence, and measures both its intensity and the part of the light spectrum to which it belongs.
“Each element in the periodic table emits an X-ray fluorescence spectrum that is unique to that atom when struck by a high-energy X-ray. Based on its ‘color’, we know exactly which element is present,” explains Gardesi: “It’s a very high-precision instrument that tells you all the elements that are at each location in a sample.”
With this information, researchers can efficiently create an elemental map of the document. By quickly scanning a page through the X-ray beam, they can create a record of the XRF spectrum at each pixel. One page can produce several million XRF spectra.
This summer, Bergmann and Gardesi were part of a team that used XRF scanning at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California to produce elemental maps of several large areas from the original pages of a first edition of Gutenberg’s Bible. 42 lines (dating from 1450 to 1455 AD) and Korean texts dating from the first part of that. century.
They scanned the texts at a rate of about one pixel every 10 milliseconds, then filtered the data by elemental signature, providing high-resolution maps showing which elements are present and in what relative amounts.
In a way, the job is like looking for treasure on an old map — Gardesi says searchers don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, but they’re more interested in the unexpected.
For example, she recently presented the first results of analyzes to the team, to demonstrate that the approach had worked and that the researchers could separate different elements. Turns out that’s not what the team found most interesting.
“Instead, these researchers spent 15 to 20 minutes talking about ‘Why is (this element) present?’ and come up with hypotheses,” Gardesi says. “As physicists, we wouldn’t even know if something is surprising or not. It’s really that interdisciplinary aspect that tells us what to look for, what the hard evidence is. .
As more questions arise based on the elemental analyses, Bergmann and Gardesi will help guide the team to answer these questions quantitatively. They already plan to recreate some first lab prints – with known types, papers and inks – and then compare those XRF scans with the originals.
Research may never definitively determine whether Gutenberg knew about Korean presses or whether he developed his press independently. But without access to the original presses themselves, these texts hold the only clues to understand the nature of these transformative machines.
“The more you read about it, the more you learn that there is less certainty about several things related to early printing presses,” says Bergmann. “Perhaps this technique will allow us to view these impressions as a time capsule and gain invaluable insight into this defining moment in human history.”
Watch Minhal Gardei show XRF at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
UW-Madison’s efforts in the project are supported by the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation.