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The History of E-Books: A Timeline

Matt Berry By Matt Berry Published on February 8, 2018

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Do you love the feel of the printed page? Do you adore the smell of a new book? Or do you prefer the magic of millions of reads at your fingertips, all in one device and just a download away? Whether you're a sci-fi addict or a YA devotee, and no matter where you stand on the greatest literary debate of the modern age (with all due respect to Team Edward vs Team Jacob), you can't deny that e-books are one of the most fascinating developments in modern publishing. So let's take a trip down memory lane with this brief history of e-books.

  • Ángela Ruiz Robles & the first automated reader

Our story begins in Spain 1949, with schoolteacher Ángela Ruiz Robles. Looking to ease the burden on her students, who have to carry a bunch of heavy books to class, she develops a prototype dubbed the Mechanical Encyclopedia that involves printing words on to spools that are operated by compressed air. So engineering and laziness give us what is recognized as the world's first automated reader. See Mom, the avoidance of physical labor can actually get you somewhere.

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Photo via NY Daily News

An excited Ángela Ruiz Robles poses with her Mechanical Encyclopedia

  • Project Gutenberg

Chapter two opens in 1971 with Project Gutenberg, which in addition to sounding super-cool, marks the arrival of the very first e-book, when Michael S. Hart, a student at the University of Illinois, is given unrestricted access to a massive Xerox computer. So what do most people do when they're bored, and have access to a giant computer? Well, they type the U.S. Declaration of Independence (in ALL CAPS, no less) into that computer and make it available for download on the network that would eventually become the internet. Thus, the first e-book is created. Not necessarily the most engaging read, but still pretty amazing nonetheless. With the goal of creating more digitized books, Hart founded Project Gutenberg, a collection that would eventually include over 50 000 digitized texts.

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Actor Steve Guttenberg who, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with e-books

  • The 90s

The nineties are a huge decade for e-books (and for pogs, frosted tips, and the Macarena). They begin with computer game makers Eastgate Systems publishing the first hypertext fiction book. Available on floppy disk, it's titled afternoon, a story and is written by Michael Joyce

In 1993, Bibliobytes becomes not only an e-book pioneer but also an online trailblazer, when they begin selling downloadable books, becoming the first company to establish a financial exchange system for the internet. 

In 1994, e-book publishing gets a major update when the publishing format goes from plain text to the much more user-friendly HTML.  

Fast-forward to 1998, which marks the debut of the very first e-book readers, NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook and the SoftBook by, well, SoftBook

As the millennium winds down, American publisher Simon & Schuster decides to party like it's 1999 (because it is), when they become the first publishing house to release e-books and print books at the same time.

  • The aughts

As the 2000s dawn, and people recover from the shock of Y2K not ending the world (I for one, don't think we're out of the woods just yet), Stephen King pens Riding The Bullet, the first novel to debut as an e-book, later published in print in his short story collection Everything's Eventual. Because hey, he hadn't really accomplished much up until that point. 

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The first ever mass- market e-book, written by obscure author Stephen King

Jump ahead to 2004, when Sony releases the Librie, the first E Ink e-reader. According to Wikipedia, “It used an electronic paper display developed by E Ink Corporation, was viewable in direct sunlight, required no power to maintain a static image, and was usable in portrait or landscape orientation”. Whatever that means. 

But in 2007, Amazon truly changes the game when they launch the Kindle, their own e-reader. It blows up, selling out in five and a half hours, which coincidentally, is the amount of time it took for me to spell coincidentally correctly.

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Amazon’s first Kindle e-reader. Whatever happened to Amazon anyway?

  • The 2010s

As the popularity of e-books soars, Apple jumps in with the iPad launch in 2010. From then on, everyone and their mother takes a swing at the rapidly growing e-book market, with Barnes and Noble, Borders, Pocketbook and more launching their own readers.

By 2012, e-books have reached almost Kardashian-level revenue, bringing in over three billion dollars in the U.S. alone.

Crunching the numbers in 2013, The Association of American Publishers finds that 20% of book sales come from e-books. According to top scientific minds, this is “a lot”.

In 2015, the same scientific minds determine that “a hell of a lot” of e-readers have been sold worldwide. In layman’s terms, that translates to 70 million.

While e-book sales have dropped since the heady early 2010s, they still remain super popular.

So what do you prefer: e-books or print books? I know, it's a seemingly impossible question, but feel free to chime in on the debate in the comment section below. In closing, I leave you with the wise words of comedian and master raconteur Stephen Fry:

"Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators"


Book lover, movie buff. Marketing copywriter for Bookwitty. A cat-person, a dog-person, and a person-person.

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