A History of eBooks

| | February 5, 2024

An Electronic Book or eBook as they are universally known is a text-based publication in digital form.  While they may contain images and graphs of some kind, mostly their formats lead them to be text-based.

eBooks are designed to be read off an electronically compatible device either an iPhone, a Kindle eReader, tablet or personal computer. While eBooks are the actual text and document being read, an E-Reader is a device that makes this possible.  Ebooks are stored as electronic files, they are small and easy to share and purchase.

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They are convenient, light and have a huge storage capacity, that allows for incredible travel reading, electronic notes, and character summaries.  However, they were not always like this.

The First Automated Reader Is Invented

The world’s first automated reader, the precursor to today’s e-readers, was invented by a woman named Angela Ruiz Robles.  Angela had her innovative idea in Spain in 1949.  Angela Ruis Robles was a school teacher, who watched her students lug textbooks back and forth from school every day.  The idea was that her reader would be far easier to carry for school children, than a number of different textbooks.

In Angela’s first design, smaller amount of text were printed onto spools and were operated by compressed air.  She made her first prototype in 1949.  While this book was not electronic it is still hailed as the first automated reader.  Her project was never picked up for mass production and she was never able to get a viable patent on the design, but there is a photograph of her holding it in 1949 so she can still claim it.

The Internet and the First eBook is Downloaded

The invention of the internet was the next huge step forward in Ebooks.  Information sharing, and file sharing was the birthplace of Electronic books.

In 1971, Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois, was given unlimited computer time on a huge Xerox mainframe computer in the Materials Research lab (probably because his brother’s best friend was one of its operators).  What might seem like an incredibly boring time in Internet history, as there were not many people on the internet in 1971, Michael Hart turned into an incredible opportunity.

The machine was used primarily for data processing, but it was also connected to ARPAnet, a part of what would later become the internet. The value of this gift, given the huge expense of buying and running such machines, he later calculated to be around $100,000,000.

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When Hart was given a copy of the Declaration of Independence at a grocery store in the lead up to the local fireworks on July 4th, he found his inspiration.  Hart came up with a good use of the computer time he had been given. He typed the text into a computer, all in capitals as there was no lower-case option at the time, and sent out a message on ARPAnet saying that it was now available to download.  Six people took him up on the offer and downloaded the text.  The world’s first e-book was born.

Hart then set about typing up more texts to make them electronically available.  His entries included The Bill of Rights, the American Constitution and the Christian Bible.  What he created was far more than an electronic text document, what he created was an idea.  The idea of not just using computers to crunch numbers and deal with data, but to get computers sharing text and literature.

What Happened Next on the TimeLine?

It was a long time before the next development came along in 1987 from the computer games creators East Gate Systems.  It was around this time that the company published the first hypertext fiction work.  The first hyper textbook was titled Afternoon by Michael Joyce and was available for purchase on a floppy disk.  This book was created as the first demonstration of a new online program called Story Space. Story Space was a software program available for Personal computers for creating, editing and reading hypertext fiction.


BiblioBytes launched a website to sell ebooks over the internet, the first company to create a financial exchange system for the net.


American publisher Simon & Schuster created a new imprint, iBooks, and became the first trade publisher simultaneously to publish titles in ebook and print format. Featured authors included Arthur C Clarke, Irving Wallace, and Raymond Chandler.  Oxford University Press offered a selection of its books over the internet through netLibrary.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in America held its first ebook conference. Dick Brass of Microsoft declared that ebooks were the future of reading. “We are embarking on a revolution that will change the world at least as much as Gutenberg did,” he declared, and predicted that by 2018, 90% of all books sold would be Ebooks.

This number, 90% fails to take into consideration the very stable and profitable Gift Book Market. 40% of the paper book market is what is called a ‘gift purchase’. People buy each other books – and they don’t buy each other EBooks. Christmas is still a huge time for selling books, recipe books, picture books, design books, coffee table books and picture books for newborn babies. This market of bookselling has not been affected by Ebooks and ebooks and still have not tapped into this market.

eBooks and how they change the way we talk about reading

Pages do not exist in E-Books, and the orientation of the reader within the text can be altered depending on adjustments made to the font size and layout.  Therefore, the location of the reader throughout the text is displayed as a percentage of the whole text.

The rise of e-readers has prompted speculation about the ways the mind processes words on a screen compared to words in paper books–the concern that holding a physical book promotes understanding in a way that staring at a screen does not.  The physicality of the book, sparks the reader to see the text not only for its content but as an object as well.

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A recent study by Sara Margolin suggests that e-readers do not hinder reading comprehension, at least in short passages of text. As research like this gains ground, the use of e-readers will only increase, and with it, new ways of conceiving of and talking about reading will surface in the language, and in turn, enter dictionaries.

Yet we still use the term bookmark to hold the place where we are up to.

While eBooks are unlikely to ever totally replace the physical books, their continued development will surely create new and interesting ways for people to consume content.

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