A Brief History of E-books

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These days e-books are not considered a novelty at all. Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and the Sony Reader are but a few of the dedicated readers available on the market. Kindle has almost become a household name. Then you have apps and e-bookstores for almost every electronic device possible, including smartphones, tablets and laptops.

With their all-pervasive presence, we might begin to feel that e-books have been with us forever. But we know that it is not the case. Where have e-books come from? How did we come to use the e-books that we have these days?

The Beginning

The idea of the e-book goes back to 1930. A guy, Bob Brown, who obviously loved reading, saw his first movie (with sound). These were called “talkies” back then!

This experience wowed him so much that he wrote a whole book, an old style book, about a machine he called “The Readies.” Brown correctly realized that movies will completely overtake the popularity of books. So, he wanted reading to find a new medium in “a machine that will allow us to keep up with the vast volume of print available today and be optically pleasing”. What would Mister Brown have to say about the volume of print available to us?

“The Readies” were, however, only an intellectual idea.

The Really First E-books

There are various contenders for the first e-book. Two of the most important ones were invented by a priest and a teacher.

Roberto Busa, a Catholic priest worked with Thomas Watson, the guy who started IBM in the late 1940’s. Their aim was to make the works of Thomas Aquinas available in an electronic format that was searchable. It was to be used primarily for indexing and concordance, and not for selling directly. Some argue that because they did not specifically publish the electronic document as an edition, it does not count!

This brings us to Ángela Ruiz Robles a Spanish teacher. She wanted to make life easier for school kids. Why carry around a bunch of heavy text books, when you only have to carry the Mechanical Encyclopaedia? (Google it and you will see that the kids would still be lugging a heavy weight around.)

The Popular Winner

While both the Holy Man and the Clever Woman introduced their versions in the 1940’s, history prefers to give a one Michael S. Hart the honor of introducing the first e-book!

He typed the (American) Declaration of Independence into a computer in 1971. This became the popularly accepted first e-book. This also became the first document in the popular Project Gutenberg. (This is a volunteer run effort to make cultural works available as well promote “the creation and distribution of e-books.”)

From the First E-book to…

Like with many good inventions, it took quite a while for the e-book to become popular. From the first e-book in 1971 to a total of 10 on Project Gutenberg took a staggering 18 years! Perhaps they couldn’t type fast enough back then?

It then took another five years for them to reach 100 e-books. They are now aiming for at least 1,000,000 e-books. Who knows a typing tutor? Ah! Forget it. We have OCR’s these days, and a large community of volunteers for distributed proofreading!

Although most assuredly not his intention, Douglas Adams, in his series of books The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, presented the idea of the e-book to the masses. When looking back we can see the similarities between today’s e-book readers and the one that Ford Prefect used. This happened in 1978.

Then in 1989 Franklin published various versions of the Bible on dedicated electronic device. This is important because it is considered the e-book that sold rather well.

In 1993, the whole e-book thing got a great boost. Digital Book Inc. published 50 books in Digital Book Format, on floppy disks. Youngsters these days probably don’t even know what a floppy disk is!

The first dedicated e-readers made their appearance in 1998. The Rocket ebook and the Softbook were not that popular and many pessimists said that it was just a fad like the hula-hoop and the Sony Walkman.

Stephen King did not agree. He celebrated the new millennium by publishing his novella, Ride the Bullet, only in e-book form. In the first 24 hours it was downloaded more than 400,000 times! What you wouldn’t give for just shy of a half-million sales?

In spite of King’s bold move, e-books still did not take off. Barns and Noble even stopped selling e-books in 2003 due to a lack of interest.

2004 was a very significant year for e-books. Sony introduced the Librie. This was the first e-reader that used the now very common electronic ink text rendering technique. This made reading e-books easier and more comfortable. Before that backlit LCDs were used. These were often not very clear, and the back-lighting strained the eyes.

Amazon was a bit slow and only introduced the Kindle in 2007. The market was, however, more than ready! In less than six hours all Kindles were sold out.

This was effectively, the birth of the popular e-book.

The Future

One sure way to make a fool of yourself is to predict the future. That is why we are not going to try! We have no idea how e-books will be a mere ten years from now. What we are willing to say, however is that if Bob Brown was still alive today, he would surely agree that his “Readies” have seen the light of the day.

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One Comment

  1. Pingback: Michael Hart – The Man Who Saw the Future | InstaScribe

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