Johannes Gutenberg is regarded as the inventor of printing with movable metallic letters and thus as the founder of modern letterpress printing – at least in Europe. This is because a collection of Buddhist teachings appeared in Korea 78 years before the world-famous Gutenberg Bible, and was also already printed with metallic letters. A collaborative research project has now set itself the task of finding out more about this – and analyzed the historical Eastern and Western prints using a high-resolution X-ray fluorescence (XRF) method.
Author Rachel Berkowitz reports on the results in an article in Physics Magazine, the online magazine of the American Physics Society. The prints were literally shone through at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, pixel by pixel using a high-resolution X-ray fluorescence imaging method. How the research team led by Uwe Bergmann, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been developing and applying X-ray spectroscopy methods for years, proceeded is roughly described as follows in the Physics Magazine article: The pages of the historic prints were placed in the equipment, which is specifically designed to handle fragile documents such as these, and the XRF spectrum of each pixel was captured using an X-ray beam to provide information about the chemical composition. “When we started XRF imaging […] we could only measure ten [chemical]channels per pixel. Now we capture the entire XRF spectrum with more than 2000 channels per pixel,” says Bergmann in the article from the journal. For printed manuscripts, this results in an X-ray image with up to 5 megapixels.
As part of the research project, pages from ten examples of Korean and Gutenberg texts from before 1500 were examined. What was particularly exciting, he said, was to see whether and how much the two printing processes had in common. It was “the million-dollar question of whether Gutenberg knew of Korean technology or not,” the physicist is quoted as saying. What was surprising, he says, was at least that both prints contained relatively large amounts of metals in their compounds, such as copper and lead.
Is Korea the birthplace of modern printing?
And in general, too, people are becoming increasingly aware of Korea’s significance for the history of printing. In the transition from wood-carved printing forms to metal-cast letters, for example, historical research by UNESCO’s International Center for Documentary Heritage (ICDH) in Korea has shown that Korean typographers as early as the 13th century knew enough about the ideal metal composition and how to optimize typesetting techniques to print books with movable metal type as early as around 1234. The oldest known example of this, he said, is the Jikji, or Buddhist teachings, from 1377 – almost 80 years before Gutenberg’s Bible. The French National Library also paid tribute to the Korean finds this summer, exhibiting the oldest jikji prints along with Gutenberg prints. In addition, a short video about the Jukji prints was also produced.
Results of the X-ray investigation
At present, the research project described is still in an early phase. Precise findings are therefore not yet available, according to the article. However, the aim is to gain a better understanding of these early printing processes. For example, the question is whether the metals in the ink used leach out and thus allow conclusions to be drawn about the alloy that Gutenberg used for his printing. These could then be compared with those from Korea, according to the article in Physics Magazine.
Beyond-print.de will definitely stay tuned and continue to report on the research project.