The particle accelerator experiment that could rewrite the history of the printing press

I am a bit nervous. In my right hand I hold a priceless piece of human history. And that’s not hyperbole. It is a weathered black folder, decorated with gold text on the front. In Gothic text it reads “A Leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455).”

Yes, That Gutenberg Bible. Dating back to the 15th century, these original pages have come to the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be blasted by a powerful X-ray. Along with the bible pages, a 15th-century Korean Confucian text, a page from the Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century, and other Western and Eastern documents will withstand the barrage. Researchers hope that within the pages of these priceless documents lie clues to the evolution of mankind’s most important inventions: the printing press.


A page from an original Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455 AD) is scanned by a beam from SLAC’s synchrotron particle accelerator.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What we’re trying to learn is the basic makeup of the inks, the paper, and maybe any remnants of the fonts used in these western and eastern prints,” says imaging consultant Michael Toth.

For centuries, it was widely believed that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany around 1440 AD. He is believed to have printed 180 Bibles (there are fewer than 50 today). But more recently, historians have found evidence that Korean Buddhists began printing around AD 1250.


A page from the Gutenberg Bible from the first and second epistles of Peter, mid-15th century.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What’s not known is whether those two inventions were completely separate, or whether there was a flow of information,” said Uwe Bergmann, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin. “If there was a flow of information, it would of course have gone west from Korea to Gutenberg.”

To put it more clearly, was Gutenberg’s invention based, at least in part, on Eastern technology? That’s where the Stanford Synchrotron radiant light source comes in.


The Spring and Autumn Annals, Confucius, c. 1442.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that fires electrons into a massive annular tunnel to generate X-rays (as opposed to SLAC’s better-known linear particle accelerator, the two-mile LCLS). These X-rays give scientists the opportunity to study the structural and chemical properties of matter. Watch the video above to see exactly how they use SSRL to study the priceless documents.

By firing the SSRL’s thinner-than-human hair X-rays at a block of text on a document, researchers can create two-dimensional chemical maps that detail the elements in each pixel. It is a technique called X-ray Fluorescent Imaging or XRF.


The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in that sample emit light, and we can track from which elements that light must be coming from on the periodic table,” said Minhal Gardezi, a doctoral student working on the project.

While the SSRL’s X-rays are powerful, they don’t damage the documents, giving scientists a holistic view of the molecules that make up the ancient texts. They also give them the ability to look for trace metals that historians say shouldn’t be in the ink. That would indicate that they probably came from the printing press itself. “That would mean we could learn something about the alloys used in Korea and by Gutenberg and maybe later by others,” Bergmann said.


Scientists can use X-rays to create two-dimensional chemical maps of ancient texts like this Confucian document.

Mike Toth/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

If they find similarities in the chemical composition of the documents, it could contribute to ongoing research into the differences and similarities of the printing technologies and whether there has been information exchange from East Asian cultures to the West.

However, every scientist I spoke to about the project made it clear that even if similarities were found between the two documents, it would not definitively prove that one technology influenced the other.

The documents are on loan from private collections, the Stanford Library and archives in Korea. The research at SLAC is part of a larger project led by UNESCO, called From Jikji to Gutenberg. The findings will be presented in April at the Library of Congress.

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