When you think of the history of eBooks, you may think back about 15 years. It’s hard to believe but the concept of an eBook has been around for 80 years! Learn more about when was the first eBook created and who stands behind this revolutionary change of our reading practices.

“Pre-History” of Electronic Books

eBooks may have taken a lot of people by surprise, but for others, they were a long time coming. When was the first eBook created? The history of eBooks is traced back to the 1930s, when American writer Bob Brown had an idea for “readies,” so called because of the 1927 release of “talkies” in movie theaters.

“The written word hasn’t kept up with the age… The movies have outmaneuvered it. We have the talkies, but as yet no Readies,” Brown wrote. “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.” Furthermore, his machine would “allow readers to adjust the type size and avoid paper cuts.” We will never know if Brown thought the idea attainable or a mere daydream.

A Woman Behind the First eBook Prototype

His dream came to life in 1949 when a Spanish school teacher named Angela Ruiz Robles invented an automated book. She used spools and compressed air to compile her children’s heavy textbooks. Her creation was not picked up for mass production. Her invention was automated, not electronic, and it would be years before the first eBook appeared. You can see a picture of her invention here.

When was the First eBook Created?

Fast forward 20 years, and a student from the University of Illinois, Michael S. Hart, invented the first eBook with a Xerox mainframe computer in a university research lab. The first eBook was none other than the American Declaration of Independence–which was really more of a pamphlet.  After the 1971 launch of his first electronic publication, Hart launched Project Gutenberg to create eBooks and develop new technology. He created digital copies of the Bill of Rights, the American Constitution, and the Bible.

It wasn’t until 1993 that the company Bibliobytes began to sell eBooks online. Bibliobytes was also the first company to create a financial exchange network on the internet. They quickly gained recognition for breaking into a new market and creating a modern financial system through the web. In 1999, publishing company Simon & Schuster created “ibooks” and simultaneously published titles in eBook and print format. Oxford University Press offered some of its books through a system called netLibrary on the internet.

A woman reads an ebook.

Game Changers

Four important events in 1998 shaped the future of eBooks: the first eBook readers launched, eBooks attained ISBNs, U.S. Libraries began providing free eBooks to the public, and Google was founded.

Sony released e-readers in 2004 and 2006. As dynamic as the market for technology was then, the market for e-readers changed forever with Amazon’s Kindle eBook launch in 2007. Increased digital presence worldwide, namely Apple’s release of the iPhone that same year, assisted the success of the Kindle. Other companies clambered on to the bandwagon. Barnes & Noble created the Nook to compete with the Kindle, and Sony partnered with libraries and Overdrive to allow libraries to lend eBooks.

Recent History of eBooks

eBooks and e-readers are a booming industry. PwC expects United States eBook sales to grow from 2.3 billion dollars in 2011 to almost 9 billion dollars in 2018. eBook sales in the United States passed regular hardback sales in the beginning of 2012. The release of e-readers prompted questions about the value of reading electronically and whether e-readers are better than paperback books. The introduction of eTextbooks has changed our college learning environment as well. A study found that students are not negatively affected by learning from e-readers rather than books, but the next stage of the study administers tests with longer and more difficult passages.

There are pros and cons to reading with an e-reader, but it really boils down to personal preference. Some people would rather hold and smell the pages of a new book, while others appreciate the mobility and holding capacity of an e-reader. Either way, enjoy your “readies!”