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History of Printing Under the X-Ray Microscope

& bullet; Physics 16, 154

The researchers turned to synchrotron imaging of history and local printing to explore possible connections between early printing methods in Korea and Europe.


A map of the Korean text illuminates how different parts of the paper behave under the synchrotron x-ray beam at SLAC’s fast-scanning facility. The data can help understand the early stages of publishing.

The printing press has been called the greatest machine of the last thousand years. Credit is usually given to the 15th century German artist Johannes Gutenberg. However, the Korean collection of Buddhist teachings, i Jikji Simchi Yojeol, it was typed 78 years before Gutenberg produced his first Bible. What are the similarities and differences in the methods used for printing Jikji and the Gutenberg’s Bible? As part of a joint research project, researchers answered this question using x-ray research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. What they learn about the chemical composition of ancient Eastern and Western texts will provide insight into how the sharing of knowledge between cultures shaped printing technology.

The history of printing goes back further than both Jikji and the Gutenberg’s Bible. Archeological evidence from the 8th century shows that East Asian scribes carved written images on blocks of wood, applied ink to them, and pressed the ink text onto paper—creating the first printed scrolls. That technique eventually transitioned to what is now known as a form of metal movable type printing. Here, an artist pours molten metal into molds to create a collection of hardened steel. These “stamps” were arranged on a board into a text that could be dipped in ink and written on paper.

The process may sound straightforward, but artisans at the time faced many challenges, such as finding the best form of metal and perfecting the setting method. Historical research by the UNESCO International Center for Cultural Heritage (ICDH) in Korea has shown that Korean scribes were struggling with these issues enough to print books with movable metal type as early as 1234. The earliest known example of this printing practice is the copy. of the Jikji from 1377.

Yet Gutenberg is still widely regarded as the inventor of the movable metal type. The record is slowly being corrected, however. The recent discovery of movable metal type from Korea has confirmed a pre-Gutenberg printing industry. And this summer, the National Library of France recognized Korea’s role as the birthplace of printing with an exhibition featuring some of the oldest prints. Jikji alongside Gutenberg’s edition

The history of printing is being rewritten, but there are still many mysteries about early metal type printing in the East and West. “The million dollar question is, did Gutenberg know about Korean technology or not?” says Uwe Bergmann, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has developed and used x-ray spectroscopy techniques at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) for many years. It is unlikely that researchers will be able to identify Gutenberg’s influence, but examining the chemical composition of substances in samples from both printing cultures will help researchers to connect their precise methods and possible connections. Bergmann and his colleagues gathered this chemical information using high-resolution x-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging of ancient texts.

The researchers collected their data by placing the papers in the x-ray beamline at the SSRL, which is specially designed to examine large and sensitive samples in archeological, medical, and geological studies. The beam scans each page, stopping at each pixel to collect an XRF spectrum that can reveal chemicals in the paper and ink. “When we first did XRF imaging at SSRL many years ago, we could only measure ten [chemical] channels for each pixel. Now we can collect an entire XRF spectrum with more than 2000 channels per pixel, Bergmann said. For printed manuscripts, the result is a 5-page x-ray image obtained in just a few hours.

During 2022, Bergmann and his colleagues analyzed tens of pages of pre-1500 Korean and Gutenberg manuscripts. The researchers were surprised that both sets of prints contained large amounts of metals in their inks, including copper and lead. Angelica Noh, a member of the ICDH team says: “We are trying to understand if the observed metal signals are related to the types of metal used for printing.

To explore this possible connection, the researchers replicated printing techniques using different inks and different papers. This “historical display”—which Bergman described in a talk at the Canadian Society for Chemistry meeting this summer—provides an opportunity to compare the fine-grained chemical details in revised papers with those in historical versions. “Our first studies on self-printing examine whether and to what extent metals from species can be released into print,” said Bergmann. They also explored other possibilities, such as metal added to the ink as a drying agent.

Although the project is still in its early stages, the hope is that the research will fill in the gaps in our understanding of early printing methods. In particular, not much is known about the types of materials used in medieval European printing. “If we can confirm that the metals are getting into the ink, we may be able to use that information to learn more about the alloy types used by Gutenberg and other Western printers,” Bergmann says. That knowledge of the alloy can be compared to what is known about Korean metal types, many of which still exist. Possible similarities may be evidence of the transfer of art between East and West.

Regardless of the exact history, the movable type metal print has made an indelible mark on human civilization. As part of the UNESCO heritage monument JikjiBergmann and his colleagues are preparing for a multi-national exhibition in 2027. “We want to inform the world about the beginning of this technology,” he says.

– Rachel Berkowitz

Rachel Berkowitz is the Associate Editor of The Magazine of Physics is based in Vancouver, Canada.

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