History of science and technology in Korea

The History of science and technology in Korea is fascinating. With a long history of over 10,000 years, the evolution of science in Korea has seen waves of discoveries and mystery. Let’s explore. 

Pre-History

At the end of the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic), the Korean region’s inhabitants embraced microlithic stone tool technology, a highly skilled and useful way of producing and managing a flexible prehistoric toolkit. The Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) also marks the start of a long period of human and plant interaction in which people unquestionably adopted several wild plants for medicinal use.

Archaeological data from Gosan-ri in Jeju-do shows that pottery was first formed c. 8500 BCE. People depended on hunting, fishing, and gathering as the primary food source until the Middle Jeulmun Period (c. 3500 to 1950 BCE) when small-scale plants’ cultivation started.

The earliest known constellation designs in Korea can be found on dolmens recording back to 2900 BCE. 

Mumun Period farmers started using various cropping systems of agriculture after 1400 BCE. This evolution in food production altered the Mumun support systems and hastened accelerated agriculture in the Korean Peninsula. Korea and nearby East Asia areas seem to have been a part of the domestication region of Glycine max (soybean) between 1400 and 500 BCE. Paddy-field agriculture, a wet-rice cultivation system was also interjected into the southern Korean Peninsula during this time.

Extensive archaeological data shows that after 850 BCE, the technology for warming homes changed. Before 850 BCE, pit-houses were warmed using fire from different kinds of hearths dug into the floor of the pit-house. After 850 BCE, hearths retired from the interior of pit-house architecture and was likely substituted with some brazier-like technology in Honam, Hoseo, and Yeongnam.

Bronze objects were traded into the Korean Peninsula from the outside before 900 BCE. However, the bronze casting molds from Songguk-RI and many bronze artifacts indicate that people in the southern part of the peninsula involved in bronze metallurgical production starting from c. 700 BCE. Several hundred years later, iron composition was adopted, and Korean-made weaponry and iron tools became increasingly common after approximately 200 BCE. Iron tools aided the spread of intensive agriculture into new regions of the Korean Peninsula.

Until recently, Koreans were believed to have invented under-floor heating, a method they call “ondol”. It was first thought to have been created by the Northern Okjeo around 2,500 years ago. However, the fresh discovery of a c. The 3,000-year-old equivalent indoor heating system in Alaska has called the current explanation into question. The absence of prehistoric and early ondol features between the two archaeological sites makes it doubtful that the two methods might have come from the same root. However, there has also been a hypothesis that whale-hunting people from the Korean peninsula have moved to Alaska by sea during the period, explaining the phenomenon.

Three Kingdoms Period

The composition of hard-fired stoneware ceramics, in which clay is vitrified in kilns at above 1000 °C, transpired first in the Korean Peninsula during the Three Kingdoms Period.

This time is notable for the institution of industrial-scale production of roof tiles and pottery. This involved the adoption of climbing kiln technology or Chinese dragon kiln sometime between 100CE–300CE.

One of the very few instances of science and technology during the Three Kingdoms of Korea that has lived until this day is the Cheomseongdae, which means “star gazing platform” and is one of the earliest observatories installed on Earth. It was constructed during Queen Seondeok’s rule. The tower has 12 base stones, which probably represent the twelve months of the year, and is constructed out of 366 pieces of cut granite, which some claim represents the 366 days of the lunar year. 

Goryeo Dynasty

During the Goryeo Dynasty, a metal movable type publication was developed by Choe Yun-ui in 1234. This invention made printing more efficient, easier and enhanced literacy. The Mongol Empire later selected Korea’s mobile type printing and expanded as far as Central Asia. There is a theory as to whether or not Choe’s invention influenced later printing inventions such as Gutenberg’s Printing press. When the Mongols invaded Europe, they unwittingly introduced different types of Asian technology.

15th century

The Joseon Dynasty, under the rule of Sejong the Great, was Korea’s most significant time of scientific advancement. In the first 50 years of the 15th century, around 60+ significant accomplishments were made in different scientific fields. Of these, 29 came from Korea alone.

Under Sejong’s new system Cheonmin (low-status) tribes such as Jang Yeong-sil were permitted to work for the government. At a young age, Jang demonstrated talent as an engineer and inventor, designing machines to promote agricultural work. These included supervising the building of canals and aqueducts. Jang eventually was permitted to live at the royal palace, where he led many scientists to improve Korea’s science.

Some of his inventions were a self-striking (automated) Jagyeokru (water clock), which worked by activating movements of wooden figures to show time visually (invented in 1434 by Jang), a subsequent more complicated water-clock with added astronomical devices, and an upgraded model of the early metal movable printing type created in the Goryeo Dynasty. The new model was of even greater quality and was twice as fast. Other inventions were the udometer and sight glass.

Modern period

Modern scientific and technological progress in South Korea initially did not occur primarily because of more important matters such as Korea’s split and the Korean War that transpired right after its independence. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s under the rule of Park Chung-hee where South Korea’s economy rapidly grew from industrialization and the Chaebol corporations such as LG and Samsung.

As of 2008, South Korea ranked 5th highest in terms of Research and Development. 

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