Historians are divided over who introduced the printing press to Thailand. The most likely candidate is Dan Beach Bradley, an American missionary, also thought to be the first person to perform surgery in the country. In 1835, he began printing translated copies of the Bible for evangelical work. 14 years later, he introduced the country’s first newspaper, the Bangkok Recorder, printed monthly in Thai. Although it ceased publication after only one year—partly because of poor subscription numbers (just 35 people at its height)—it was resurrected with greater success in the 1860s.[1]

Rev. Dr. Dan Beach Bradley (1804 – 1873), an American Protestant missionary to Siam, is credited with numerous firsts, including bringing the first Thai-script printing press to Siam and publishing the first Thai newspaper and monolingual Thai dictionary.

During the first half of the 19th century, the printing presses of Siam (as Thailand was known until 1939), were chiefly reeling off evangelical texts for the swarms of missionaries who had begun entering the country in the 1820s. While Siam’s absolute monarchs saw these incoming Christians as an annoyance, they were tolerated and allowed to go about their work. After all, Christianity was only of interest to the country’s small Chinese and European communities.

But the ready availability of printing presses allowed one young noble to attempt something that would foreshadow Siam’s changing public sphere. In the late 1840s, as Mot Amatayakul was engaged in a feud with the courts over an inheritance, he paid a small fee to a clerk to make a copy of the country’s legal text, the so-called Three Seals Law, so that he could study it by himself. “After reading the text, [he] came to realise that those who did not have knowledge of the laws would face problems when dealing with legal matters,” writes the historian Thanapol Limapichart.[2]

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David Hutt

David Hutt is a Cambodia-based political journalist who has been covering Asian affairs since 2014. He is Southeast Asia Columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to international publications. Previously, he was a reporter for the Southeast Asia Globe and editor of Focus Asean. He holds a first-class undergraduate degree in History from the University of Sussex.