The BBC, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times have all named the movable metal typeset printing press as the greatest invention of the last 1000 years.

In medieval times, only scholars and the lucky, aristocratic few had access to information because of the exorbitant expense of printing books xylography, the art of printing from wood carvings.The invention of metal typeset was no less than an information revolution That was to change the history of the world.

Movable metal typeset technology promised the mass production of books. In a very short period information on a diverse range of subjects was being conveyed to the public at large. Information became a popular commodity.

And it brought revolution. In the western world the information revolution gave birth to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the Democratic Revolution. These periods were crucial in changing and shaping the Western world. 

Often credited with this mass dissemination of information is Gutenberg, whose “42-line Bible” in 1455 was Europe’s first mass-produced book. 

Main Subject 1. – Goryeo and the Birth of Metal Type

In 1900, at the World Exposition in Paris, The world was startled to see an extremely old and worn book. It eventually became clear that this relic, on display in the Korean Hall,  was printed with a movable metal typeset. Only, it was old, very old, and it originated in a small country in the Orient. It was dated 1377.

78 years before Gutenberg.

It is called ‘Jikji’  and it is the oldest surviving publication of a movable metal typeset. Goryeo’s technology was clearly ahead of its time. Evidence suggests the appearance of metal typesets as old as the early 13th century. Many signs and evidences that Goryeo invented and developed metal type technology have been found in the early 1,200s, about 200 years earlier than in the western world. 

It’s safe to say Goryeo’s Jikji printing press surprised the people in Paris By upending all previous assumptions that Gutenberg’s press had been the world’s first. 

Main Subject 2. – The Silk Road of Printing led by Korea.

Al Gore, former US vice president and the Novel Peace Prize laureate, made an interesting remark during his 2005 visit to Korea. Gutenberg’s press, he said, may have been the direct result of an early papal delegation sent to Goryeo. The delegation, impressed with what they saw, brought back the idea.  

Indeed, his claim is backed by the Swiss Museum of Paper, Writing, and Printing.

In October, 2005, in Frankfurt, Germany,  German and Korean scholars took note of how Goryeo and the Joseon influenced the printing histories of China, Iran, and the Eastern world, and posited its spread along what may be called: the “Printing Road,” after the famous path silk followed west.

It only makes sense that Gutenberg, a simple metal worker with no experience in publishing, had some help. The story of a completed printing press, fashioned from scratch in a mere 20 years,
is simply too fabulous for serious scholars to accept. 

Papal delegations aside, most likely is that his help came from Goryeo, developed by the Joseon and delivered to Samarkand via the Northern plain of the Silk Road.

Main Subject 3. – Reclaiming the Jikji

As has so often happened before, the Jikji no longer rests with the descendants of its originators. It was ferried to France from Seoul in 1887 by Collin de Plancy, charg d’affaires ad interim with the French Embassy. Today it is kept in a dedicated safe as an article of value at the French National Library.

In 2001, Jikji was listed as a UNESCO Memory of the World. Its memory is invaluable to Korean history. As the country of origin, Korea has repeatedly requested its return. In the end, this story, that a small country of the Orient would develop such a revolutionary technology, should surprise no one.

Today’s Korea is an Information Technology powerhouse. Among the 180 countries ranked, Korea consistently ranks first in national IT utilization.

To think, its success was foreshadowed as far back as the Jikji in the 13C.

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