A Brief History of eBooks

Updated on January 31, 2019
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Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

A Brief History of Electronic Book Technology
A Brief History of Electronic Book Technology

The History of eBooks

Electronic books, or eBooks, are an easy, convenient, and thoroughly modern way of accessing literature and text-based information. While you may associate eBooks and eReader devices with modern life, they have a long history that goes back further than you might imagine.

From the cover of "The Readies" by Bob Brown.
From the cover of "The Readies" by Bob Brown. | Source

“The Readies” – An Idea is Born in 1930

The concept of an electronic book was first devised in 1930, around the same time that paperback books first appeared on the shelves. Writer Bob Brown first wrote of his idea of an eReader that would allow readers to read books on a screen after viewing his first “talkie” (that is, a movie that includes sound). He called this idea the “readies,” playing off the term “talkies.”

According to Bob Brown, this device was needed because:

“The written word hasn’t kept up with the age… The movies have outmaneuvered it. We have the talkies, but as yet no Readies. […] To continue reading at today’s speed, I must have a machine. […] A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to. [This machine would] allow readers to adjust the type size and avoid paper cuts.”

This hypothetical “readies” idea would allow readers to read books much faster than they could read printed books. In addition to converting books to digital files, Brown’s idea would also replace normal words with huge numbers of portmanteau symbols and use new types of punctuation to simulate action or movement. These speed-reading ideas never caught on when eReading devices and eBooks were eventually invented, but the idea of reading books electronically did.

Angela Ruiz Robles with her Enciclopedia Mecánica
Angela Ruiz Robles with her Enciclopedia Mecánica | Source

Enciclopedia Mecánica – An Early eReader Prototype from 1949

The first prototype eReader devices was devised by the Spanish school teacher, Angela Ruiz Robles in 1949. After watching her students struggle to lug heavy books back and forth from school each day, she was inspired to create an invention that would allow students to more easily handle their reading loads.

Angela Ruiz Robles called her invention the Enciclopedia Mecánica, or the “Mechanical Encyclopedia.” The device contained spools of printed text, which could be operated using compressed air. This first prototype was not electronic, but it was the first known automated reading device. Her invention went through several redesigns and the final version included audio recordings, a magnifying glass, a calculator, and an electric reading light. The invention was never picked up for mass production, but one of her prototypes is still kept at the National Museum of Science and Technology in La Coruna, Spain.

Roberto Busa with the print version of the Index Thomisticus.
Roberto Busa with the print version of the Index Thomisticus. | Source

Index Thomisticus – Possible Candidate for First eBook, created between 1949 and 1970

There is some debate as to whether the Index Thomisticus, prepared by Roberto Busa can be properly considered the first eBook. In 1949, Roberto Busa began creating a heavily annotated electronic index to the works of theologian Thomas Aquinas, which he finally completely in 1970. This digital work was originally stored on a single computer but was eventually released as a CD-ROM in 1989.

Some historians do not consider this work to count as the first eBook, as it was intended to be used for studying existing written texts, rather than to be a stand-alone published edition.

The US Department of Defense's "Personal Electronic Aid to Maintenance".
The US Department of Defense's "Personal Electronic Aid to Maintenance". | Source

Early eBook Technology of the 1960s

Some historians consider several projects from the early 60s to be the precursors of the modern-day eBooks. These projects include the NLS (oN-Line System) project headed by Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and the Hypertext Editing System and FRESS (File Retrieval and Editing System) projects headed by Andries van Dam at Brown University.

FRESS documents were run on IBM mainframes and were formatted dynamically for different users, display hardware, window sizes, etc. and they contained automated tables of content and indexes. These systems allowed for the use of hyperlinking, graphics, and many other capabilities. Van Dam is generally thought to have coined the term "electronic book."

FRESS was used mainly for reading extensive primary texts online, as well as for annotation and online discussions in several courses, including English Poetry and Biochemistry. Brown University's work in electronic book systems continued for many years, including in US Navy funded projects for electronic repair-manuals, a large-scale distributed hypermedia system known as InterMedia, a spinoff company called Electronic Book Technologies, which created DynaText (the first SGML-based e-reader system), and the Scholarly Technology Group's work on the Open eBook standard.

Project Gutenberg's homepage.
Project Gutenberg's homepage. | Source

“United States Declaration of Independence” Digital Version and Project Gutenberg

Michael S. Hart is commonly credited as inventing the eBook as we know it today. In 1971, University of Illinois student Michael S. Hart was given unlimited computer time on a huge Xerox mainframe computer in the Materials Research lab, which was mainly used for data processing, but was also connected to ARPAnet (the precursor to the modern Internet).

When Hart was given a copy of the Declaration of Independence at a local grocery store in commemoration of the 4th of July, he was inspired to type the entire text into the computer and make it available to download via ARPAnet. The file, which became known as the first eBook to many historians, was downloaded by six people.

Hart then created electronic versions of other texts, including The Bill of Rights, the American Constitution, and the Bible. He then founded Project Gutenberg, where he made public domain texts available for people all around the world to download for free. Project Gutenberg is still running today, providing access to texts in plain-text format that can be read on virtually any digital device.

There are many different eReaders available today!
There are many different eReaders available today! | Source

Dedicated Hardware for Reading Digital Books

In 1997, E Ink Corporation developed a technology that would allow digital screens to reflect light just like ordinary paper without the need for a backlight. The Rocket eBook was the first commercial e-reader device to use this technology. This technology was eventually used by several other manufacturers to create new eReader devices, including Amazon Kindle, which was released in 2007 and became the most popular eReader in the world.

eReading apps on different devices
eReading apps on different devices | Source

eReader Apps on Other Devices

Many companies that offer eReader devices or publish eBooks offer apps that can be used on a variety of devices, including mobile phones, tablets, and computers. Amazon offers their Kindle app, which can turn any compatible device into a Kindle eReader and gives readers access to Amazon’s Kindle store anywhere. iPads and iPhones can also access Apple’s iBooks app, which allows readers to purchase books directly from Apple’s digital store.

eBooks are much more portable that print books.
eBooks are much more portable that print books. | Source

eBooks vs Printed Books

eBooks have many advantages and disadvantages over traditional print books. The main advantage that eBooks have is that they allow the user to contain many books in a smaller space. This makes traveling with reading material much easier. Many eReader devices also have a built-in light source, which makes reading in the dark much easier.

Many people still prefer traditional print books, however. Some people prefer the tactile feel of paper books. Some people also dislike eBooks because some publishers apply Digital Rights Management (DRM) to eBooks. Others are fearful that their privacy may potentially be compromised when they download and read eBooks, as data about what books they read could be collected and stored.

Research Sources

historycooperative.org/a-history-of-e-books

govbooktalk.gpo.gov/2014/03/10/the-history-of-ebooks-from-1930s-readies-to-todays-gpo-ebook-services

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-book

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Jennifer Wilber

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      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I never knew the ebook was thought of in 1930. I have a small Kindle that will actually fit right in my purse. The pages light up and I can underline something or change the font size as I desire. I really enjoy it.

        This history of ebooks was interesting.

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