Where did the story of ebooks begin?

A history of the electronic book


What do publishers think about the electronic book/ ebook? Do they see it as a threat or an opportunity? In a world that is shifting more and more towards digital, publishing houses have to learn how to effectively publish their books in a digital format, in order to keep up with the competition of the Word Wide Web.

This essay  is looking at the beginnings of the electronic book, who first introduced into the world the notion of the electronic book and who was its inventor. It looks at how publishers see the ebook and how they had to change in order to adopt this new product.

The traditional book has seen a lot of transformation in the past 80 years. Publishers think that now is the tipping point of no return, that the traditional publishing will emerge into digital and self-publishing, seeing the drastic changes that happen in the publishing industry. In 2009, the ISBN agency reported that there were over a million self-published books (print or electronic) – in this situation, the role of the publisher is threatened, as contemporary authors, or even someone who isn’t an experienced author, can just publish books online, almost for free, devaluing the high quality content of a book professionally published by a press.

Publishers feel that self publishing of books in electronic formats devalues the content of a good book, as there is an increasing pressure to keep the prices low and to offer more value for money. Also, the competition has doubled, perhaps tripled, and readers now get an overwhelming sense that they are constantly being sold to, making marketing more difficult.

Ebooks have made publishing houses’ life more difficult because there are many ebook formats, that means publishing houses have to do three or more times the work that could have been done once. Publishing houses have to publish ebooks in at least three formats, as every retailer uses different file formats.

Their work has significantly increased, as every separate format has to be run through a specific technical list of steps to create the file properly, these include numerous proofing and quality control steps. The skill-sets required to do the file preparation, output and delivery can’t be found in the traditional publishing roles, therefore publishers have to invest capital in order to train existing production and design staff or hire new people.

Metadata is very important when it comes to ebooks. If the metadata is incorrect, the readers can’t find the ebook. Ebook buyers run into metadata problems all the time, that is why, most publishing companies hire someone that will be in charge with making sure ebooks have the correct metadata. This is another role that was created thanks to ebooks, more money to be invested.

First attempts to the, so called, electronic book. 

There is a lot of controversy as to whom was the first to introduce the notion of a book in electronic format an who was the first inventor. Little they have known that in 80 years, the so called electronic book will create a lot of controversy amongst the publishing industry, threatening the existence of the traditional print book and making publishers struggle with so many ebook formats they have to provide when they publish their books digitally.

Bob Brown (1930)

The idea of the electronic book was firstly introduced by Bob Brown, in his book “The Readies”. The idea came to him after listening to his first “talkie”, which is a movie with sound. In 1930 he wrote the book “The Readies” where he talks about the notion of electronic format books, playing off the idea of the “talkie”. In many ways, Brown predicted the contemporary ebook, writing in his book that the reading machine will allow its readers to change the type size, avoid paper cuts and save trees.

In his vision, the electronic book will change the medium of reading, by bringing a completely new perspective: “A machine that will allow us to keep up with the vast volume of print available today and be optically pleasing”. He intended this innovation as a way for literature to keep up with the advancement of the other industries, such as the advanced reading practices of the cinema-viewing public, as seen in the “talkies”. Even though he was the one to first introduce the idea of the electronic book, his book remained forgotten until 1993, when Jerome McGann declared about the book: “When the after-history of modernism is written, this collection . . . will be recognized as a work of signal importance”.

Even though Bob Brown first introduced the notion of the electronic book approximately 85 years ago, a notion that is most close to what the ebooks and e-Readers are today, the early commercial e-Readers did not follow his model.

Candidates for the first book inventors

Who first invented the ebook is much debated within the publishing industry. There are a few candidates that are enumerated below.

Roberto Busa (late 1940s)

Some of the first candidates to the creators of the ebook is Roberto Busa. Index Thomisticus is a heavily annotated electronic index of Thomas Aquinas’ works. Index Thomisticus was planned as a tool to perform text searches in Aquinas’ works.

The project began in 1949 and was done with the help of a sponsorship from Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM. The project took approximately 30 years and it launched in 1970s, with 56 printed volumes of the Index Thomistichus, stored on a single computer. Ten years later, with the appearance of CD-ROMs, a new version was produced and made available on CD-ROMs. In 2005 a web based version was launched, sponsored by Fundación Tomás de Aquino and CAEL and one year later, in 2006, the Index Thomisticus Treebank project started syntactic annotation of the entire corpus.

Roberto Busa is considered by the industry a pioneer of digital humanities. His project is seen as an outstanding mileage in Informatics and Computing in Humanities, as it marks the beginning of the field of computing in the humanities.

Angela Ruiz Robles (1949)

Angela Ruiz Robles is another pioneer in inventing the innovative electronic book. She invented the Mechanical Encyclopedia 60 years ago, with the aim to reduce the weight of books in students’ school bags. She also believed that this gadget will make reading more accessible to all. As she designed the device in her home country, Spain Because Spain’s economy was suffering at the time, her design was not prioritized and never received the funding required to be produced in mass. “The implementation of all the specifications of the invention was impractical,” said Maria Jose Rodriguez Fortiz, language professor at the University of Granada.

The first ebook was produced to function through air compression, with changeable spools that carried content. It was reported to have zoom capabilities and utilized coils to move the scrolls. The spools and other inserts were housed within a hard metal case with a handle. She created an original prototype that is working and is now displayed in the National Museum of Science and Technology in Spain. In her later years when everything was technologically viable, she had another attempt at re-waping the project, but again, she did not manage to secure any funding.

Her patent is considered to be the the most close gadget to what ebooks are in our days.

Doug Engelbart and Andries van Dam (1960s)

Some historians consider electronic books started with  the NLS project initiated by Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute and the Hypertext Editing System and FRESS projects initiated by Andries van Dam at Brown University. Van Dam is considered to be the one who coined the term “Electronic Book”, that was established enough to be used as an article title in 1985.

Michael S. Hart  and the First Ebook implementations (1971)

Despite there were so many attempts before 1970s at creating the electronic book Michael Hart was the one who managed to finally create the first ebook. He was provided computer time by the operators of Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois, and he used that time to type the United States Declaration of Independence into a computer in plain text. This was the first electronic document ever created. His future plan was to create such document, using plain text, that can be easily downloaded and viewed on various electronic devices.

Project Gutenberg was initiated by Hart with the main aim being to produce more electronic copies of text, in particular books. It’s mission was to provide to everyone interested in literary works, electronic formats of lit works for free.

In January 2009 Michael Hart stated the following in an email interview: “On July 4, 1971, while still a freshman at the University of Illinois (UI), I decided to spend the night at the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the UI Materials Research Lab, rather than walk miles home in the summer heat, only to come back hours later to start another day of school. I stopped on the way to do a little grocery shopping to get through the night, and day, and along with the groceries they put in the faux parchment copy of The U.S. Declaration of Independence that became quite literally the cornerstone of Project Gutenberg. That night, as it turned out, I received my first computer account – I had been hitchhiking on my brother’s best friend’s name, who ran the computer on the night shift. When I got a first look at the huge amount of computer money I was given, I decided I had to do something extremely worthwhile to do justice to what I had been given. This was such a serious, and intense thought process for a college freshman, my first thought was that I had better eat something to get up enough energy to think of something worthwhile enough to repay the cost of all that computer time. As I emptied out groceries, the faux parchment Declaration of Independence fell out, and the light literally went on over my head like in the cartoons and comics… I knew what the future of computing, and the internet, was going to be… ‘The Information Age.’ The rest, as they say, is history.”

Hart started keying in other works, and as the disk space was getting larger he gathered volunteers to type the Bible one individual book at a time. In 1989 Project Gutenberg completed its 10th ebook and that was The King James Bible. Project Gutenberg’s mission can be stated in eight words: “To encourage the creation and distribution of ebooks,” by everybody, and by every possible means, while implementing new ideas, new methods and new software.

Historians consider that the credit for being the inventor of the electronic book should be given to Michael Hart, as he was the one who digitized the content of a book and distributed it in electronic format.


US Libraries started to  provide free ebooks to the public in 1998 on their website and associated services. The ebooks were primarily scholarly, technical and professional in nature, and could not be downloaded. After a few years, libraries started offering free downloadable popular fiction and non-fiction to the public and also have launched an ebook lending model.

In time, the number of libraries providing free downloadable ebooks and lending models increased, however libraries started to face challenges as well. Publishers were selling ebooks to libraries but they were only given a limited licence, meaning that libraries were not owning the electronic text, but they were allowed to circulate it for a limited amount of time or a limited amount of checkins.

As it can be seen above, even from the beginnings of the ebooks, publishers have regarded them more as a threat rather than opportunity. They have started to provide limited licences to libraries in order to ensure a stable profit from their ebooks.


Industry professionals have predicted that ebooks will soon take over the traditional book. This hasn’t happened yet. This prediction has scared a lot of publishing houses, as that could mean bankruptcy for them. Researchers have investigated how people utilize, comprehend and process digital and paper books and their findings were that people can read better from a printed book compared to the electronic book, where there are multiple distractions, such as: hypertext, e-mail, videos,  and pop – up advertisements.

The electronic book has brought a lot of changes in the publishing industry and has transformed how publishing houses function. They have brought extra costs for training staff new skills, cost for production and the risk for bankruptcy because of self-publishing online. The invention of the ebook might have been revolutionary, but from the point of view of a publisher, it’s a threat to their current publishing model.

As a conclusion, I will answer the question posed at the start of this essay. The electronic book is a revolutionary invention that has changed a lot in the publishing sphere. Publishers see it as a threat as many studies have shown that ebooks will take over books. This hasn’t happened yet, and in my opinion, it never will. Ebooks will forever remain an extra that you can buy besides the traditional printed book, whenever you are short on space when you are travelling, or you can’t carry something heavy (life a few books) and you just grab your e-Reader to do your daily reads. Publishers shouldn’t see ebooks a threat, but rather as an opportunity.

3 Replies to “Where did the story of ebooks begin?”

  1. Aniela,

    Coming from a history undergraduate, I found the timeline of the ebook you covered in your essay illuminating. It is clear you put a lot of work into finding the historical background of the ebook and were able to draw in a number of different parts of the story of digital reading to form a great overview. One of the most informative parts for me was the covering of Project Gutenberg, while learning about its origins was interesting, it would have been relevant to explore the impact of the project today and the reaction of the publishing industry towards it. Project Gutenberg discusses ereaders and reader apps on their news site, it would be interesting to see how they now work together. See here: http://www.gutenbergnews.org/category/ereader-apps/

    Your initial premise to examine “how publishers see the ebook and how they had to change in order to adopt this new product” is incredibly significant to a number of conversations we have today. Tracking the candidates for inventor of the ebook is interesting, it would perhaps have been useful to see if there was any connection between these early contenders. If we could track the history of the ebook more directly to the ebook we are familiar with today. Perhaps leading from Michael Hart and Project Gutenberg to the floppy disks of Host by Peter James (there is a really interesting interview with him below) to the modern ebook. http://editingeverything.com/blog/2014/10/20/peter-james-author-of-host-the-first-ebook-interview/

    It would be beneficial to have more about the publishing industry as it was influenced by the history of the ebook. The digital discussion is one that we have time and time again, it would be more useful to analyse the current arguments and perhaps compare those to reactions towards ebook developments at their time of creation. In the opening to your essay you attempt to cover a number of topics that affect contemporary digital publishing, from self-publishing, to ebook formats, to metadata. Expanding more on any one of these topics and bringing in the historical context would have added to a highly topical conversation.

    It would have been beneficial to also have had a list of works cited at the end of your essay. There are a few sources I found when curiously looking into the subject and I’m not sure if you used them to. For example the Guardian article linked below explores the beginnings of ebooks and mentions a few more developers and publishers that were missing from your own list.

    Overall, I found this to be an interesting approach to a topic we discuss almost daily. Looking at the origins of the ebook certainly gives context to current debates on digital publishing, but choosing one aspect on which to focus would have allowed you to shown how this history impacted the current landscape.

  2. I really agree with your idea that publishers shouldn’t see e-books a threat, but rather as an opportunity. And I believe that printing book will not disappear in the future as well. Actually, the data about book sale in 2015 in China shows that the sales volume of printing books more than e-book. Actually, do you think cooperation will be a good way? Digital publishing looks be more and more interactive and they do not focus on content. There is a separation of content and technology. Is it will be an opportunity for traditional presses to change their lives? Become a content provider.

    I always doubt that is e-book really the future of publishing? Every time have some basic technology for supporting every industry to improve and develop. This time the technology is internet. That is to say, if a industry want to develop well, it must based on the internet. But the start of e-books more like from the printing books. I think it is just a compromise the publishing industry did for the new time, It is not some new technology based on Internet.

    And do you think maybe e-book will have a complete different way with printing books? In fact, people like to read different contents use different tools. That is to say the readers of e-books and the readers of printing books may different. It maybe one of the reason why some presses publish the same content in two or three different forms but cannot have a good result. Using the right container for content is very important.

    In addition, I also look that there are some very beautiful printing books. They do not have valuable content but just a kind of art. Through paper and printing, the author want to convey the spirit and meaning which are more abstract. So maybe printing book can become a part of art in the future as well.

    There are just some fragment of opinions about e-books and printing books. The only truth is the future of publishing will have a lot of possibilities.

  3. This account of ebooks offers a lot of potential starting points, ranging from individuals to projects to companies that have been, in some way or another, responsible for giving us electronic books. This offers us a complex and rich history of the ebook, but it lacks an analytical framing. It asks and answers a question at the beginning and end of the essay respectively, but gets too distracted with the historical account to address it in the middle.

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