The History Of eBooks: From 1930 To Today

Did you know that the first eBook prototype was built way back in 1949? Today, let’s explore the almost century long history of eBooks.

Book Culture Bookstr Trivia
Someone holds an eReader above a dark brown table. The eReader says "Electronic Book" and there is a white teacup and saucer on the table.

The Readies

After seeing his first talkie in 1927, author Bob Brown thought to himself that books could no longer compete with the fast-paced energy of cinema. This thought inspired Brown to conceptualize the first eBook in his book, The Readies. In this book, Brown laid out his idea for a “reading machine” which would allow readers to read text extremely quickly in a hyper abbreviated form.

An example of Bob Brown's hyper abbreviated "readie."

Ideally, this reading machine would be portable and convenient. It would run on electricity and allow readers to go through hundred thousand word novels in almost no time at all. Brown envisioned a tiny roll of reading “film” that would unroll beneath a magnifying glass. Both the pace at which the film is unrolled and the size of the text would be adjustable to fit the desires of the reader.

While Brown’s specific reading machine never became a reality, it was the first to embody what we think of as an eBook today.

The Enciclopedia Mecánica

The Mechanical Encyclopedia.

In 1949, Ángela Ruiz Robles would have an idea for an invention similar to Bob Brown’s reading machine. As a teacher, Ruiz Robles wanted to make textbooks both easier to interact with and easier to haul around. This is how she came to create the Enciclopedia Mecánica, or the Mechanical Encyclopedia.

Although her invention was never commercialized and technically automatic rather than electronic, Ruiz Robles deserves credit for creating one of the first eBook prototypes.

The Earliest eBooks

Despite the idea of an electronic book circulating as early as the 1930s and 40s, many agree that the first eBook wasn’t actually published until 1971. This is when Michael S. Hart launched Project Gutenberg.

His first project was to digitize the Declaration of Independence and distribute it to other users on his computer network. Hart’s original goal for Project Gutenberg was to digitize 10,000 books and make them available to people for free by the end of the 20th century. Today, Project Gutenberg boasts over 60,000 free eBooks.

The Project Gutenberg logo.

Although Project Gutenberg is largely based on literary works in the public domain, most of the earliest eBooks were not. If you were reading an eBook in the 70s, chances are it was a technical manual or something like that. At the time, eBooks were for specialty subjects and very limited audiences.

eBooks In The 1990s

eBooks as we know them today really started to take off in the 1990s, largely due to the invention of the internet a few years prior. eBooks could still be downloaded and passed around physically, but now they could also be shared online.

Bibliobytes was the first to cash in on this idea. In 1993, Bibliobytes became the first company to create a financial exchange network on the internet. This network is where they sold the first eBooks online.

The first card from Paul Baim's hypercard stack called EBook. The card has instructions on how to use the program.

In 1993, Paul Baim also released a freeware HyperCard stack called “EBook” that could give any text file pages, much like a digital book. This was the first time the term “eBook” was used. In 1998, eBooks got ISBNs, and some libraries began carrying eBooks.

The Rise of eBooks

While the internet introduced many people to the concept of eBooks, what really popularized them was the introduction of eReaders. While they may not have been the magnifying, film-rolling devices that Bob Brown envisioned, these were our more modern take on his reading machine.

One of the first eReaders was Sony’s 1992 Data Discman, which displayed eBooks that were stored on CDs. However, once Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007, eBooks exploded in popularity. Soon enough, companies like Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google were all jumping on the bandwagon with their own eReaders and digital libraries.

Five eReaders, displaying five different eBooks, lie on a wooden table.

In 2010, Apple’s newly launched iBookstore on iTunes sold half a million eBooks in less than a month, and for the first time, Amazon reported that its eBook sales outnumbered its hardcover book sales. By 2013, the Association of American Publishers reported that eBooks accounted for around 20% of all U.S. book sales.

It’s hard to believe that the first eBook was thought of all the way back in 1930. Almost a century later, we can read almost any book that we want on our phones. For more bookish content from us at Bookstr, click here!