How Much Faster are Printing Presses Today Than They Used to Be?
Technology moves pretty quickly, so when we get frustrated about something not working the way it's supposed to, it's always kind of humbling to think about how far we've come. Like, sure, your car guzzles gas and it can be expensive—but in 1850, you would have been riding a horse! Losing the TV remote in your couch cushions is annoying, but not as annoying as it used to be marching across the room to turn the dial. And of course, the next time your Internet is running slowly, try walking to the library to use an actual printed encyclopedia, and see how much faster that is!
Speaking of printed books, let's take a closer look at another technological example: Printers. I can't tell you how often I get frustrated by the error messages my printer comes up with. "PC load letter?" What does that even mean? A few hundred years ago, though, printing a page was even less convenient, and a heck of a lot slower. The printing press today is considerably faster than it was closer to the time it was invented, but just how much faster? Let's take a look at a few examples: The first steam-powered press, and then something a little more modern.
Koenig's Steam-Powered Press
When the printing press was invented, it had to be operated by hand, and it wasn't particularly fast. In fact, Johannes Gutenberg's printing press operated so slowly that it just wouldn't be fair to include it in this comparison, so we'll skip ahead a few years to a more mechanized alternative.
Friedrik Koenig invented the steam-powered press in 1812, and it seriously improved upon the speed of hand-operated presses. Using steam power, this press was able to process a whopping 400 sheets per hour—impressive, right? We'll compare it to a modern competitor.
Heidelberg Printing Machines
As a basis for comparison, let's go with a Heidelberg printing machine. In operation since the 1800s, Heidelberg has been manufacturing printing presses during some of the biggest technological advances in the industry, and still makes them today.
Before we go on, let's specify something: There are two types of printing press. Some print on giant sheets of paper, while others unspool one long sheet from a giant roll of paper, which is cut up after being printed (these are called web-fed presses). The latter kind are much faster, so to be fair, we'll choose a press that uses sheets, like the 1812 steam-powered press that Koenig invented did.
One of Heidelberg's electric Speedmaster machines prints 15,000 sheets per hour—in color. That's more than 37 times what the steam press could handle in 1812. It would take Koenig and his steam-powered machine more than a month to print as much as a Heidelberg printing machine does in a day.
Between Then and Now
So what happened? How did technology change so much in a relatively short amount of time? While web-fed presses made printing faster than ever before, that doesn't explain the vastly improved speed of sheetfed presses like the ones we compared. But computers and automation do.
For one thing, back in 1812, all of the printed letters had to be arranged manually, piece by piece—just like they were when the printing press was first invented. Compared to the completely computerized presses of today, which read files and build printing plates automatically, this was an incredibly slow method of pre-production.
Once the machines actually started printing, though, they still weren't nearly as speedy as they are today. One reason is that while they were powered by steam, they still had to be operated manually. An actual person was responsible for feeding paper in and out, and operating the machine.
And while even the computerized printing machines of today need someone on-hand to operate them, their job consists of a lot more button-pushing and a lot less hard labor. Virtually the entire process is automated, from the moment that paper is fed into the press to the time it is dried, cut and folded.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Since Gutenberg first invented a faster method of mass-producing the printed word, technology has seriously improved. What was once a painstakingly slow, manual method of production has grown exponentially faster with mechanization, steam power, electricity and computer technology. So while the 400-page-per-hour machine that Koenig introduced in the early 1800s was a technological revolution, it wasn't long before it was beaten by web-fed machines and more mechanical advances. And of course, it wasn't long before those advances were made obsolete by new ones, and so one. It makes you wonder about how advanced we think today's technology is, and how far it stands to go in just the next few years!