The History of eBooks from 1930’s to Today’s eBook Services.

By | August 28, 2018




I hope you enjoy this, article. It charts the way E-Books and E-Readers have evolved over the years.


The Readies (1930)

Some people trace the idea of an e-reader, that will enable a reader to view books on a screen to a 1930 manifesto by Bob Brown, apparently written after he was watching his first “talkie” (movie with sound). He called it The Readies, he was playing off the idea of the “talkie”. In this book, Brown says movies have outmaneuvered the book by creating the “talkies” and, as a result, reading should find a new medium:

“A simple reading machine which he could 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.”
Brown’s idea, however, was much more focused on reforming orthography and vocabulary, than on medium (“It is time to pull out the stopper” and begin “a bloody revolution of the word.”): introducing huge numbers of portmanteau symbols to replace normal words, and punctuation to simulate action or movement; so it is not clear whether this fits in the history of “e-books” or not. Later e-readers never followed a model at all like Brown’s. Nevertheless, Brown predicted the miniaturization and portability of e-readers. In an article, Jennifer Schuessler writes, “The machine, Brown argued, would allow readers to adjust the type size, avoid paper cuts and save trees, all while hastening the day when words could be ‘recorded directly on the palpitating ether.” He felt that the e-reader (and his notions for changing text itself) should bring a completely new life to reading. Schuessler relates it to a DJ spinning bits of old songs to create a beat or an entirely new song as opposed to just a remix of a familiar song.



No one knows who the inventor of the first e-book, it is not widely agreed upon. Their are some notable candidates which include the following:


Ángela Ruiz Robles (1949)

In 1949, Ángela Ruiz Robles, who was a teacher from León, Spain, patented the Enciclopedia Mecánica, or the Mechanical Encyclopedia, it was a mechanical device which used compressed air where the text and graphics were kept on spools that users would have to load onto rotating spindles. Her whole idea was to make a device which would help decrease the amount of books that her pupils carried to school. The final device was never put into production but you can see the prototypes, it is kept in the National Museum of Science and Technology in La Coruna, Spain.


Roberto Busa (late 1949–1970)

The first e-book may be the Index Thomisticus, a heavily annotated electronic index to the works of Thomas Aquinas, prepared by Roberto Busa, S.J. beginning in 1949 and completed in the 1970s. Although it was originally stored on a single computer, a distributable CD-ROM version also available and appeared in 1989. However, this work is sometimes omitted; perhaps because the digitized text was a means for studying written texts and developing linguistic concordances, rather than as a published edition in its own right. In 2005, the Index was published online.


Doug Engelbart and Andries van Dam (1960s)

Alternatively, some historians reckon electronic books started in the early 1960s, with the NLS project which was headed by Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and the Hypertext Editing System and FRESS projects headed by Andries van Dam at Brown University. FRESS documents ran on IBM mainframes and were structure-oriented rather than line-oriented; they were formatted dynamically for different users, display hardware, window sizes, and so on, as well as having automated tables of contents, indexes, and so on. All these systems also provided extensive hyperlinking, graphics, and other capabilities. Van Dam is thought to have coined the term “electronic book”, and that it was established enough to use in an article title by 1985.


FRESS had been used for reading alot of primary texts online, as well as for annotation and online discussions in several courses, including English Poetry and Biochemistry. Brown’s faculty made extensive use of FRESS; for example the philosopher Roderick Chisholm used it to produce several of his books. Thus in the Preface to Person and Object (1979) he writes “The book would not have been completed without the epoch-making File Retrieval and Editing System…” Brown’s work with electronic book systems continued for many years, including working for US Navy who funded projects for electronic repair-manuals; a large-scale distributed hypermedia system known as InterMedia; which was a spinoff company called Electronic Book Technologies that built DynaText, the first SGML-based e-reader system; and the Scholarly Technology Group’s extensive work on the Open eBook standard.


Michael Hart (left) and Gregory Newby (right) of Project Gutenberg, 2006


Michael S. Hart (1971)                                                  Reported First E- Book



Despite the extensive earlier history, several publications have Michael S. Hart as the inventor of the e-book. In 1971, the operators of the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois gave Hart extensive computer-time. Seeking a worthy use of this resource, he created his first electronic document by typing the United States Declaration of Independence into a computer in plain text. Hart had planned to create documents by using plain text to make them as easy as possible to download and view on devices.


Early implementations

After Hart had first adapted the Declaration of Independence into an electronic document in 1971, Project Gutenberg was launched designed to create electronic copies of more texts – especially books. Another early e-book implementation was a desktop prototype for a proposed notebook computer, the Dynabook, in the 1970s at PARC: a general-purpose portable personal computer capable of displaying books for reading. In 1980 the US Department of Defense began the development for a portable electronic delivery device for technical maintenance information this was called project PEAM, the Portable Electronic Aid for Maintenance. Detailed specifications were completed in FY 82, and the prototype development began with Texas Instruments that same year. Four prototypes were produced and delivered for testing in 1986. Tests were completed in 1987. The final summary report was produced by the US Army research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences in 1989 authored by Robert Wisher and J. Peter Kincaid. A patent application for the PEAM device was submitted by Texas Instruments titled “Apparatus for delivering procedural type instructions” was submitted Dec 4, 1985 listing John K. Harkins and Stephen H. Morriss as inventors.


The first portable electronic book, the US Department of Defense’s “Personal Electronic Aid to Maintenance”.




First ” Personal Electronic Aid”                                                            The DD-8 Data Discman



In 1992, Sony launched the Data Discman, it was a electronic book reader that enabled you to read e-books that were stored on CDs. One of the electronic publications that could be played on the Data Discman was called The Library of the Future. Early e-books were mostly written for specialty areas and a limited audience, they were meant to be read only by small and devoted interest groups. The scope of the subject matter of these early e-books included technical manuals for hardware, manufacturing techniques, and other subjects. In the 1990s, the availability of the Internet had made it easy to transfer electronic files, including e-books.


E-book formats


What is a e-reader?, a E – Reader is a mobile electronic device and it was designed primarily for the purpose of reading e-books and digital periodicals. An e-reader is similar to a Tablet in form, but has a much more limited in purpose than a tablet. To make a comparison to tablets, many e-readers do a better job than a tablet for reading, because they are very portable, also has better readability in sunlight and the as a longer battery life. In July 2010, the online giant had reported that the sale of e-books for its Kindle was outnumbering the sale of the good old hardcover book for the very first time in the second quarter of 2010, Amazon was saying it had sold over 140 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, this included hardcovers for which there was no digital edition. In January 2011, e-book sales at Amazon had surpassed its paperback sales. In the overall US market, paperback book sales are still much larger than either hardcover or e-book; the American Publishing Association estimated e-books represented 8.5% of sales as of mid-2010, up from 3% a year before. At the end of the first quarter of 2012, e-book sales in the United States surpassed hardcover book sales for the first time.


Until late 2013, use of an e-reader was not allowed on airplanes during takeoff and landing by the FAA. In November 2013, the FAA allowed use of e-readers on airplanes at all times if it is in Airplane Mode, which means all radios turned off, and Europe followed this guidance the next month. In 2014, the New York Times predicted that by 2018 e-books will make up over 50% of total consumer publishing revenue in the United States and Great Britain.



Reading applications on different devices
Some of the major book retailers and multiple third-party developers offer free (and in some third-party cases, premium paid) e-reader software applications (apps) for the Mac and PC computers as well as for Android, Blackberry, iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone and Palm OS devices to allow the reading of e-books and other documents independently of dedicated e-book devices. Examples are apps for the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, iBooks, Kobo eReader and Sony Reader.


Below is the Timeline of the rise of the E-Book and E-Reader:



Until 1979


Ángela Ruiz Robles patented in Galicia, Spain, she had an idea of the electronic book, and called it the Mechanical Encyclopedia.
Roberto Busa began planning the Index Thomisticus.


Doug Engelbart starts the NLS (and then later Augment) projects.


Andries van Dam started the HES (then later FRESS) projects, with the help of Ted Nelson, to develop the electronic textbooks for humanities and in pedagogy.


Michael S. Hart writes the US Declaration of Independence into a computer which created the first e-book that was available on the Internet he then goes on to launch Project Gutenberg this was to create electronic copies of more books.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series launches (novel published in 1979), featuring an electronic reference book containing all knowledge in the Galaxy. This vast amount of data could be fit into something the size of a large paperback book, with updates received over the “Sub-Etha”.


Roberto Busa finishes the Index Thomisticus, a complete lemmatisation of the 56 printed volumes of Saint Thomas Aquinas and of a few related authors.


Judy Malloy wrote and programmed Uncle Roger, it was to be the first online hypertext fiction with links that took the narrative in different directions depending on the reader’s choice.


Project Gutenberg releases its 10th e-book on its website.
Franklin Computer then released an electronic edition of the Bible and was read on a stand-alone device.


Eastgate Systems publishes the first Fiction hypertext and it was released on floppy disk, it was called “Afternoon, a story”, by Michael Joyce.
Electronic Book Technologies then releases DynaText, this was the first SGML-based system for delivering large-scale books such as aircraft technical manuals. It was tested on a US aircraft carrier as a replacement for paper manuals.


Voyager Company develops Expanded Books, these were books on CD-ROM in a digital format.


The DD-8 Data Discman
F. Crugnola and Rigamonti will go on to design and create the first e-reader, they called it Incipit, as a thesis project while at the Polytechnic University of Milan.


Peter James published his novel “Host” on two floppy disks but at the time they were calling it the “world’s first electronic novel”; you can find a copy stored at the Science Museum.
Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominee works are included on a CD-ROM by Brad Templeton.
Bibliobytes, this was a website were you could obtain e-books, both for free and for sale on the Internet.


C & M Online is founded in Raleigh, North Carolina and publishes e-books through its imprint, Boson Books. Authors include Fred Chappell, Kelly Cherry, Leon Katz, Richard Popkin, and Robert Rodman.
The popular format for publishing e-books had changed from plain text to HTML.


A online poet Alexis Kirke begins to discuss the need for wireless internet electronic paper readers in his article “The Emuse”.


Project Gutenberg by now had reached 1,000 titles.
Joseph Jacobson works at MIT to create electronic ink, a high-contrast, low-cost, read/write/erase medium to display e-books.


E Ink Corporation was co-founded in 1997 by MIT undergraduates J.D. Albert, and Barrett Comiskey, MIT professor Joseph Jacobson, also Jeremy Rubin and Russ Wilcox to create an electronic printing technology. This technology will be used on the displays of the Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Amazon Kindle.


Bookeen’s Cybook Gen1


The Cybook was sold and manufactured at first by Cytale (1998–2003) and later by Bookeen.


NuvoMedia releases the first handheld e-reader, the Rocket eBook. After this Softbook launched its Softbook reader. This new e-reader, had expandable storage, and it could store up to 100,000 pages of content, including text, graphics and pictures.





The NIST released the Open eBook format based on XML to the public domain, most future e-book formats derive from Open eBook. and on XML.
It was Publisher Simon & Schuster who created a new imprint called ibooks and became the first trade publisher to simultaneously to publish some of their titles in e-book and print format.
Oxford University Press was offering a selection of its books available as e-books through the netLibrary.
Publisher Baen Books opens up the Baen Free Library to make available Baen titles as free e-books.
Kim Blagg, via her company Books OnScreen, began selling multimedia-enhanced e-books on CDs through retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders Books.


Joseph Jacobson, with Barrett O. Comiskey and Jonathan D. Albert were granted US patents related to displaying electronic books, these patents are later used in the displays for most e-readers.
Stephen King releases his novel “Riding the Bullet” exclusively online and it would became the first mass-market e-book, it sold 500,000 copies in 48 hours.
Microsoft releases the Microsoft Reader with ClearType to increase readability on PCs and handheld devices.
Microsoft and Amazon had joined together to sell e-books that could be purchased on the Amazon platform and using Microsoft software downloaded to PCs and handhelds.
A digitized version of the Gutenberg Bible was made available online at the British Library.


Adobe releases Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0 allowing users to underline, take notes and bookmark.


Palm, Inc and OverDrive, Inc make Palm Reader e-books available worldwide and offered over 5,000 e-books in several languages; these could be read on Palm PDAs or using a computer application.
Random House and HarperCollins start to sell digital versions of their titles in English.


Sony Librie, first e-reader using an E Ink display was released; it had a six-inch screen.



Google announces plans to digitize the holdings of several major libraries, as part of what would later be called the Google Books Library Project.


Amazon then buys Mobipocket, the company who created the mobi e-book file format and e-reader software.
Google is then sued for copyright infringement’s by the Authors Guild for scanning books that were still in copyright.


Sony Reader PRS-500 with an E Ink screen and two weeks of battery life was released.




Sony Reader PRS-500



LibreDigital launched BookBrowse as an online reader for publisher content.


The larger Kindle DX with a Kindle 2 for size comparison
The International Digital Publishing Forum releases EPUB to replace Open eBook. releases the Kindle e-reader with 6-inch E Ink screen in the US and it sells outs in 5.5 hours.
Simultaneously with the Kindle in November, Amazon opened the Kindle Store which had more than 88,000 e-books available.
Bookeen launched the Cybook Gen3 in Europe, it had the ability to display e-books and play audiobooks.


Adobe and Sony agree to share their technologies (Adobe Reader and DRM) with each other.
Sony sells the Sony Reader PRS-505 in UK and France.
BooksOnBoard becomes first retailer to sell e-books for iPhones.


Bookeen releases the Cybook Opus in the US and in Europe.




Sony releases the Reader Pocket Edition and Reader Touch Edition.
Amazon releases the Kindle 2 that included a text-to-speech feature.
Amazon releases the Kindle DX that had a 9.7-inch screen in the US.
Barnes & Noble releases the Nook e-reader in the US.
Amazon released the Kindle for PC application in late 2009, making the Kindle Store library available for the first time outside Kindle hardware.


In January 2010, Amazon releases the Kindle DX International Edition worldwide. Bookeen reveals the Cybook Orizon at CES.
Apple releases the iPad bundled with an e-book app called iBooks.
Kobo Inc. releases its Kobo eReader to be sold at Indigo/Chapters in Canada and Borders in the U.S.
Amazon reports that its e-book sales outnumbered sales of hardcover books for the first time ever during the second quarter of 2010.
Amazon releases the third generation Kindle, available in Wi-Fi and 3G & Wi-Fi versions.
Kobo Inc. releases an updated Kobo eReader, which included Wi-Fi.
Barnes & Noble releases the Nook Color, a color LCD tablet.
Google launches Google eBooks offering over 3 million titles, becoming the world’s largest e-book store at that time.
PocketBook expands its line with an Android e-reader.
In Canada, The Sentimentalists won the prestigious national Giller Prize in 2010. Owing to the small scale of the novel’s independent publisher, the book was not widely available in printed form so the e-book edition became the top-selling title for Kobo devices that year.

2011 announces in May that its e-book sales in the US now exceed all of its printed book sales.
Barnes & Noble releases the Nook Simple Touch e-reader and Nook Tablet.
Bookeen launches its own e-books store,, and starts to sell digital versions of titles in French.
Nature Publishing publishes Principles of Biology, a customizable, modular textbook, with no corresponding paper edition.
The e-reader market grows in Spain, and companies like Telefónica, Fnac, and Casa del Libro launches their e-readers with the Spanish brand “bq readers”.
Amazon launches the Kindle Fire and Kindle Touch; both devices were designed for e-reading.


E-books sold in the U.S. market collects over three billion in revenue.
Kbuuk released the cloud-based e-book self-publishing SaaS platform on the Pubsoft digital publishing engine.
Apple releases iBooks Author, software for creating iPad e-books to be directly published in its iBooks bookstore or to be shared as PDF files.
Apple opens a textbook section in its iBooks bookstore. – previously called and, a popular linking website for downloading e-books – was accused of copyright infringement and shut down by court order on February 15.
The publishing companies Random House, Holtzbrinck, and arvato get an e-book library called Skoobe on the market.
US Department of Justice prepares anti-trust lawsuit against Apple, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, Macmillan, and HarperCollins, alleging collusion to increase the price of books sold on Amazon.
PocketBook releases the PocketBook Touch, an E Ink Pearl e-reader, winning awards from German magazines Tablet PC and Computer Bild.
In September, Amazon releases the Kindle Paperwhite, its first e-reader with built-in front LED lights.


In April 2013, Barnes & Noble posts losses of $475 million on its Nook business for the prior fiscal year and in June announces its intention to discontinue manufacturing Nook tablets, although it plans to continue making and designing black-and-white e-readers such as the Nook Simple Touch, which “are more geared to serious readers, who are its customers, than to tablets”.
The Association of American Publishers announces that e-books now account for about 20% of book sales. Barnes & Noble estimates it has a 27% share of the U.S. e-book market.
In June, Apple executive Keith Moerer testifies in the e-book price fixing trial that the iBookstore held approximately 20% of the e-book market share in the United States within the months after launch – a figure that Publishers Weekly reports is roughly double many of the previous estimates made by third parties. Moerer further testified that iBookstore acquired about an additional 20% by adding Random House in 2011.


A Kobo Aura’s settings menu

Five major US e-book publishers, as part of their settlement of a price-fixing suit, were ordered to refund about $3 for every electronic copy of a New York Times best-seller that they sold from April 2010 to May 2012. This could equal $160 million in settlement charges.
Barnes & Noble releases the Nook Glowlight, which has a 6-inch touchscreen using E Ink Pearl and Regal, with built-in front LED lights.
In April, Kobo released the Kobo Aura HD with a 6.8-inch screen, which is larger than the current models produced by its US competitors.
In May, Mofibo launched the first Scandinavian unlimited access e-book subscription service.
In July, US District Court Judge Denise Cote finds Apple guilty of conspiring to raise the retail price of e-books and schedules a trial in 2014 to determine damages.
In August, Kobo released the Kobo Aura, a baseline touchscreen six-inch e-reader.
In September, Oyster launches its unlimited access e-book subscription service.
In November, US District Judge Chin sides with Google in Authors Guild v. Google, citing fair use.The authors said they would appeal.
In December, Scribd launched the first public unlimited access subscription service for e-books.


In early 2014, Amazon launches Kindle Unlimited as an unlimited-access e-book and audiobook subscription service.[118]
In April, Kobo released the Aura H₂0, the world’s first waterproof commercially produced e-reader.[119]
In June, US District Court Judge Cote grants class action certification to plaintiffs in a lawsuit over Apple’s alleged e-book price conspiracy; the plaintiffs are seeking $840 million in damages.[120] Apple appeals the decision.
In June, Apple settles the e-book antitrust case that alleged Apple conspired to e-book price fixing out of court with the States; however if Judge Cote’s ruling is overturned in appeal the settlement would be reversed.


In June 2015, the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals with a 2-1 vote concurs with Judge Cote that Apple conspired to e-book price fixing and violated federal antitrust law. Apple appealed the decision.
In June, Amazon released the Kindle Paperwhite (3rd generation) that is the first e-reader to feature Bookerly, a font exclusively designed for e-readers.
In September, Oyster announced its unlimited access e-book subscription service would be shut down in early 2016 and that it would be acquired by Google.
In September, Malaysian e-book company, e-Sentral, introduced for the first time geo-location distribution technology for e-books via bluetooth beacon. It was first demonstrated in a large scale at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
In October, Amazon releases the Kindle Voyage that has a 6-inch, 300 ppi E Ink Carta HD display, which was the highest resolution and contrast available in e-readers as of 2014. It also features adaptive LED lights and page turn sensors on the sides of the device.
In October, B&N released the Glowlight Plus, its first waterproof e-reader.
In October, the US appeals court sided with Google instead of the Authors’ Guild, declaring that Google did not violate copyright law in its book scanning project.
In December, Playster launched an unlimited-access subscription service including e-books and audiobooks.
By the end of 2015, Google Books scanned more than 25 million books.
By 2015, over 70 million e-readers had been shipped worldwide.


In March 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear Apple’s appeal that it conspired to e-book price fixing therefore the previous court decision stands, which means Apple must pay $450 million. in April, the Supreme Court declined to hear the Authors Guild’s appeal of its book scanning case that means the lower court’s decision stands; this result means Google is allowed to scan library books and display snippets in search results without violating US copyright law.
In April, Amazon released the Kindle Oasis, its first e-reader in five years to have physical page turn buttons and as a premium product includes a leather case with a battery inside; the Oasis without including the case is the lightest e-reader on the market.
In August, Kobo released the Aura One, the first commercial e-reader with a 7.8-inch E Ink Carta HD display.
In September 2016, Perlego released an online platform that provides e-books to students under a monthly subscription fee in Europe.
By the end of 2016, smartphones and tablets both individually overtook e-readers for ways to read an e-book, and paperbook books sales were higher than e-book sales.


In February 2017, the Association of American Publishers released data that shows the U.S. adult e-book market declined 16.9% in the first nine months of 2016 over the same time in 2015 and Nielsen Book determined that in 2016 the e-book market had an overall total decline of 16% in 2016 over 2015, including all age groups. This decline is partly due to widespread e-book price increases by major publishers, which brought the average e-book price from $6 to nearly $10.


Some e-books are produced simultaneously with the production of a printed format, as described in electronic publishing, though in many instances they may not be put on sale until later. Often, e-books are produced from pre-existing hard-copy books, generally by document scanning, sometimes with the use of robotic book scanners, having the technology to quickly scan books without damaging the original print edition. Scanning a book produces a set of image files, which may additionally be converted into text format by an OCR program. Occasionally, as in some projects, an e-book may be produced by re-entering the text from a keyboard. Sometimes only the electronic version of a book is produced by the publisher. It is possible to release an e-book chapter by chapter as each chapter is written.[example needed This is useful in fields such as information technology where topics can change quickly in the months that it takes to write a typical book. It is also possible to convert an electronic book to a printed book by print on demand. However, these are exceptions as tradition dictates that a book be launched in the print format and later if the author wishes an electronic version is produced. The New York Times keeps a list of best-selling e-books, for both fiction and non-fiction.

From early times E-Readers and E- Books have drastically changed for the better. Their are more features now, and the manufacturer’s keep coming up with new things to improve the smooth running of your E-Reader. So why not invest now while prices are so low, you will be able to see the review of the Kindle Paperwhite


3 thoughts on “The History of eBooks from 1930’s to Today’s eBook Services.

  1. Akoli

    “The History of eBooks from 1930’s to Today’s eBook Services”, what an interesting topic for a blog post!

    i use eBooks a lot in my business and your article has shed light on how it has evolved. This is very interesting reading. Your article made me see eBooks in a different way now.

    I see a few typos in the article; for example in the conclusion: “Their are more features now,”

    Now, do you see eBooks and eReaders going in a different direction in a few years from now?

    Thanks for this useful article.

  2. Netta

    Good job, John!

    I like that you begin the history with the first recorded conceptualization of an electronic book in the 1930’s.

    The creativity and innovative thinking that went into the development of ebooks are most impressive, but I do hold a certain fondness for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    The marketing strategies and tactics and the interplay between traditional publishers and the ebook guys sounds like rough-and-tumble in the finest bookish tradition.

    It will be interesting to see what happens next.

    Thank you.

    1. john bicknell

      Thanks for your nice comments, in my opinion in years to come E-Books will replace, paperback, and Hardbacks, and become the norm. 



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