How many times faster were the printing presses, which gave Europe an advantage over other continents in term of access to knowledge, compared to copying of books by hand?

  • Difficult to answer. The first printed books contained also painted parts, e.g. the Initial
    – knut
    Jul 9, 2012 at 21:19
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    @knut It should be noted that the Gutenberg Bible was designed to be illuminated exactly like hand copied books. So it's perfectly possible to make an accurate comparison. But I can't find any sources on how long it took to copy the text of one page. Jan 23, 2014 at 20:53

2 Answers 2


According to Wikipedia, the average human handwrites at about 22 words per minute or 1300 words an hour when copying something. The bible has about 800,000 words and the Gutenberg has about 1200 pages so that's 660 words per page. Along that logic a person can copy around 2 pages per hour. The wikipedia entry suggests about 4 pages per hour by the way. Obviously it would be longer if you want to try to make the script look really pretty for a rich patron.

Now Gutenberg's first printing press could supposedly print about 25 pages per hour. So that's 10 times as fast. I suspect setting up the type for that page took quite a while, considerably longer than handwriting the same page would take. However, you could theoretically make up for that in volume by printing out lots of copies of that page.

Later presses of course improved on this, improving the speed of setting the movable type being a priority. Wikipedia's printing press entry has pretty good typical numbers:

The mechanization of bookmaking led to the first mass production of books in history in assembly line-style. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday, compared to forty by typographic hand-printing and a few by hand-copying. Books of bestselling authors like Luther or Erasmus were sold by the hundreds of thousands in their lifetime.

Basically where throughput is concerned, the two aren't even comparable. In a world that includes printing presses, a person trying to promote an idea via hand-copying is bringing a knife to a gunfight.

By the way, the idea of copying a book page by page (so called block-printing) was already used in Asia for more than a thousand years. At the time of Gutenberg, Chinese printers where said to achieve up to 200 pages an hour. So it is inacurate to say that this gave Europa an advantage. It would take another 400 years before printing speed was significantly increased but by then the speed increases were fast and dramatic.

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    Answers.com seems a pretty unreliable source. Besides that, good answer! +1
    – Luke_0
    Jul 9, 2012 at 22:03
  • I am missing the number of words per page to estimate exactly how much faster it was for each man-hour. I find it interesting to understand whether we are talking 10, 100 or 1000 times faster for the first presses.
    – David
    Jul 9, 2012 at 23:49
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    @David - What I was trying to get at there by not making that jump is that they aren't entirely comperable, because how much faster a printing press is depends on how many copies of each page/book you are going to make. I suppose in the realm of number theory, if you let the number of copies approach infinity, the typesetting overhead for each page will become an insignificant consideration. This is the real world though, so it matters. Still, if you insist on a number, I suppose you could estimate wikipedia's "a few" is something like 6, which would give you a nice figure of 600 times.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 10, 2012 at 1:47
  • The Gutenberg bible had on the order of 625 words per page, which at 22/min is about 28 min. If printing were 0.166 min per page, it would be about 170 times faster for an infinite press run. (However the Gutenberg bible had a run of 180 and took 12 people 3 years, which is about 28 minutes per page also.)
    – mgkrebbs
    Jul 10, 2012 at 2:55
  • @mgkrebbs ...assuming you are calculating working hours per year correctly. I'd prefer to not do that comparison unless you had similar numbers for the working hours of copyists.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 10, 2012 at 14:00

T.E.D.'s answer is the definitive one here, but the other thing to remember is scalability: it might take a while to set the type for a printed page, but every copy after that first one takes a fraction as long to print because the type has already been set. Copying a page by hand takes just as long the 1,000th time as it did the first, and that's not even accounting for the possibility of errors that would render a page unusable.

Thus, printing presses might NOT have been much faster for projects requiring only 1-2 dozen copies, but the benefit would grow proportionally to the size of the project. Printing jobs requiring many, many copies, like the Bible or a widely-circulated pamphlet, were able to reap not only the short-term benefits of printing speed, but the repetitive bonus of cranking out copy after copy from a single design.

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    Each handmade copy also has its own chances for error. Once the page is proofed, all copies are accurate reproductions barring inkspots.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 24, 2014 at 1:45

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