To celebrate the 50th anniversary of ebooks, we have prepared the list of the most interesting – and lesser known – facts from the history of ebooks and audiobooks. Enjoy!
On July 4, 1971, the first ebook in the world, the US Declaration of Independence, was created by Michael S. Hart and shared among other users of the computer network at the University of Illinois.
Since that time, several products and concepts appeared and were developed. Some of them failed, but all contributed to what ebooks represent today.
What was the first e-reader you used? Do you still have it in your basement? Do you remember a book reading app you downloaded to your first tablet? Do you still use it? Do you still keep that CD-ROM with the audiobook you received for Christmas 20 years ago?
I started my adventure with ebooks in 2009, when I bought my first iPhone and downloaded the now iconic Stanza book reading app to it. However, the history of ebooks is longer than our own experience. It’s even longer than 50 years.
Ideas to create machines that would make using books more convenient appeared already in the first half of the 20th century. You will also find them on the list.
I have visualized over 20 stories, so that you can easier share them with your friends and followers. Feel free to do it, if you believe ebooks and audiobooks are worth it.
Ebooks are with us for 50 years. Time to celebrate!
Most interesting facts about ebooks and audiobooks
The first ebook in the world was released on July 4, 1971. It is the US Declaration of Independence.
In 1971, passionate technologist and futurist Michael Stern Hart, inspired by a free printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, decided to transcribe it into a computer.
He made the file available to other users of the computer network at the University of Illinois, with an annotation that it was free to use and distribute.
The longest single ebook currently available is “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary.” The file equals 13,080 print pages and takes 37 MB.
One of the biggest benefits of ebooks is convenience. All parts of a book series can be bundled into a single fully searchable file.
The highest number of pages in an ebook we have found so far is the New Testament commentary series by preacher John MacArthur. The book includes the entire collection – 33 volumes. It was released in 2015, and costs over $400. ⇢ More info.
Enciclopedia Mecánica, an electrical and air pressure reading device from 1949, is the most stunning predecessor of the e-reader.
Patented in 1949 by a Spanish writer and teacher Ángela Ruiz Robles, this incredible device operated through using pressurized air. The user could add different spools containing the preloaded content. The inventor planned on adding a reading light, calculator, and sound, to the following prototypes.
In 1998, author and entrepreneur Kim D. Blagg obtained the world’s first ISBN for an ebook.
The ebook, Gambler’s Nook, was offered on a multimedia CD. Blagg distributed it through her company Books OnScreen and then Pagefree Publishing to major retailers including Barnes & Noble and Amazon. ⇢ More info.
In just a few months, a 26-year-old author Amanda Hocking earned almost $2 million from selling her self-published ebooks.
After being rejected by publishers several times, a young paranormal romance writer Amanda Hocking looked into self-publishing. In April 2010, she started publishing her novels in the Kindle Store. The books were priced between $0.99 and $2.99.
Released in 2016, Kobo Aura One was the first e-reader featuring adjustable warm light.
An adjustable warm front light is a way to reduce the amount of blue light exposure in the evening so that you can fall asleep more easily.
The warm light was not the only innovative feature of Kobo Aura One. The e-reader came with a large 7.8-inch 300 dpi display and a built-in OverDrive support. It was waterproof and surprisingly lightweight. ⇢ More info.
In 1997, Audible released the world’s first commercial media player designed for listening to audiobooks.
This portable digital audio device was called Audible MobilePlayer. It cost $199 and was sold only online or over the phone. The package included also a docking station, battery, headphones, serial cable, cassette adapter, and leather carrying pouch.
“Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators” is probably the most famous quote about ebooks.
This is the point. One technology doesn’t replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.
Electrolibrary is a creative project from 2012 using a paper book as a computer interface.
Created by Waldek Węgrzyn and inspired by El Lissitzky’s manifesto (published in 1923), the experiment combined elements of electronics, printing, graphic design, and bookbinding.
The custom-made 32-page paper book was connected to the computer via USB cable. Just like a mouse or a keyboard, the book was a way to control the computer: navigate by turning the pages, activate animations, or perform special tasks. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
Described in 1968 by futurist Alan Kay, Dynabook was a concept of a personal computer intended for education.
The first sketch from 1972 and the following mock-ups of Dynabook very much resemble e-readers with physical keyboards – Sony LIBRIé or the 1st-generation Kindle.
Alan Kay believed Dynabook would become “a personal computer for children of all ages.” Many features he wanted to see in his portable device are nowadays available in laptop computers, tablets, or e-readers. ⇢ More info.
Stephen King’s “Riding the Bullet” novella was the world’s first mass-market ebook. 400,000 copies were downloaded in just 24 hours.
The ebook was released in March 2000 by Simon & Schuster, and available for download in pdf format at $2.50. The huge demand in the first hours caused the servers to jam. Readers had to wait for hours for the file to download.
An iPhone interactive book app with Nick Cave’s “The Death of Bunny Munro” 2009 novel was an inspiring look into the future of ebooks.
This award-winning, breakthrough book & audiobook app was developed by Enhanced Editions. It featured a full sync between text and audiobook narration, atmospheric music by Nick Cave, and 11 videos of the author reading the novel.
The app included also advanced features that are now a standard in today’s book and audiobook apps: ability to set an audiobook reading speed, advanced personalization options, night mode, and more. ⇢ More info.
Launched in 1990, Sony Data Discman was the first commercially available ebook reader in the world.
The device was launched in Japan in July 1990. It came with a 2.8-inch grayscale LCD screen mounted in the upper lid, and supported a special EB (“Electronic Book”) format.
A year later, the export version (DD-1EX) was launched in the US for $600 and was bundled with three electronic books, including Compton’s Concise Encyclopedia. The books were available on 3-inch optical discs that could contain up to 100,000 pages of text. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
In 1993, The British Library started a digitization of their most precious manuscripts, including Beowulf.
The Electronic Beowulf Project was developed by The British Library since spring 1993 in cooperation with the University of Kentucky and Western Michigan University.
The first manuscript to digitize was the Old English epic poem Beowulf, and a huge collection of images was created. By 1998, the database included fiber-optic readings of hidden characters and full electronic facsimiles. The same year, The British Library started offering the digitized manuscripts to the public. ⇢ More info.
In 2011, 24symbols launched the world’s first subscription-based ebook platform.
A Spanish digital company 24symbols launched the Netflix-like service in June 2011, allowing members to access and read ebooks in any internet browser. Over 1,000 titles were available at launch, and the company planned on releasing iOS and Android apps.
24symbols started the ebook subscription service two years before Scribd (which launched in 2013) and three years before Kindle Unlimited. ⇢ More info.
In January 1992, the Voyager Company revealed the first digital books available on floppy disks in HyperCard format.
The ebooks were a part of the Expanded Books project which developed ways to present and use print book content on digital screens. They highly contributed to how ebooks work today.
The first three books, The Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy among them, offered search, navigation, bookmarks (called “dog-ear”), annotations and copy features, as well as font styling. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
GemBook was a concept e-reader from 1999 that used replaceable memory cards and required no connection to another device.
GemBook was promoted as a device designed to work with replaceable memory cards. Each GemCard would hold up to 600 pages of text. Users would exchange cards just like they exchange traditional books.
The e-reader was told to be both “beach proof” and “ketchup proof.” However, a working prototype of GemBook was never revealed. ⇢ More info.
Digital Bookmobile is the world’s first mobile library dedicated to ebooks and audiobooks.
The first Digital Bookmobile started in Central Park in August 2008. Operated by OverDrive, it is designed to teach readers how to access digital books and audiobooks.
In 2011, for the first time ever, Amazon customers were buying more Kindle ebooks than print books combined.
In May 2011, Amazon announced that Kindle ebook sales surpassed all print book sales – both hardcover and paperback. Sine April 1, for every 100 paper books purchased on Amazon, 105 Kindle ebooks were bought.
Earlier, in July 2010, Kindle book sales surpassed hardcover book sales. Six months later, in January 2011, Amazon customers bought more Kindle ebooks than paperback books. ⇢ More info.
BiblioTech, the first ebook-only public library, opened in Texas in 2013, with 10,000 titles.
Located in Bexar County, the first fully operating all-digital public library is designed to bridge literacy and technology gaps in the surrounding area.
At launch, the library was equipped with 45 iPads, 40 laptops, and 48 desktop computers. Members could also borrow one of 800 e-readers, with 200 of them being enhanced for children. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
An entire collection of an average school library could fit into a single e-reader.
A vast majority of school libraries report collections of up to 25,000 volumes. This number of book files can be stored on every e-reader that’s equipped with 32 GB of internal memory, such as Kindle Paperwhite or Oasis.
Even more books can be stored on e-readers that come with the ability to add external memory cards. ⇢ More info.
In 1932, the first “talking books” were recorded, marking the beginning of the modern audiobook.
The talking-book program was established by the American Foundation for the Blind and the US Congress a year earlier. It was intended to provide reading material to visually impaired war veterans and other blind adults.
Talking books were played on special Talking Book machines. Among the early recordings were Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and works of disability rights advocate Helen Keller. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” was the first-ever novel from a major publisher that was released simultaneously in print, ebook, and audiobook versions.
The novel was released on September 15, 2009, and became the fastest selling adult novel in history, with over 1 million combined copies purchased during the first day.
By the end of the first week, 2 million copies were sold in the US, UK, and Canada. On the first day, the Kindle edition of The Lost Symbol outsold on Amazon the sales of the hardback version. ⇢ More info.
Blink (book + link) was a concept book linked to digital content thanks to conductive ink and a Bluetooth module.
Created in 2006 by Manolis Kelaidis from the Royal College of Art in London, the book had buttons that were printed with conductive ink.
When you touched a button and your finger completed a circuit, the book sent a command to a nearby computer via the Bluetooth module hidden in the back cover.
The world’s smallest working e-reader has a 2.9-inch E-Ink display and is designed just for reading haiku.
This micro e-reader was developed by an Argentinian electronic artist Roni Bandini, who bought a cheap 128-by-296 display made by Waveshare and created a cabinet on a 3D printer.
Originally, the Haiku Reader had a few Japanese poems hard-coded into the system, but the author planned on adding a microSD port. ⇢ More info.
Bookerly is the first font that was created exclusively to be used in ebooks.
This beautiful, warm, classic-style typeface was designed by Amazon from scratch to increase legibility and reading speed as well as reduce eyestrain across as many devices and screens as possible.
The typeface was being added to Kindle apps and devices from the beginning of 2015. A few months later, Google introduced their own ebook-friendly font Literata, designed by Type Together. ⇢ More info.
Sensory Fiction is the first book using a wearable to convey the plot, set the mood, and feel the main character’s emotions.
Created in 2013 by Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault, Sensory Fiction explored new ways of reading with digital augmentations.
A special wearable connected with the book allowed the reader to experience the protagonist’s emotions, for instance, a change of the heartbeat rate (through air pressure bags) or localized temperature fluctuations. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
Launched in October 2012, Txtr Beagle was the world’s smallest e-reader to date. It had a 5-inch screen and could operate on two batteries for over a year.
Txtr Beagle was surprisingly cheap – you could get it for €10 (about $13). It was extremely thin and weighed just 128 grams. Users could download ebooks via Bluetooth thanks to a dedicated mobile app.
The e-reader was designed to unlock a huge mass market of customers who were not yet accustomed to ebooks. The plan was to bundle the e-reader with cell phone plans offered by mobile network operators. ⇢ More info.
Launched in 2013, Whispersync for Voice feature allowed users to switch between reading and listening across all their devices.
Ability to seamlessly switch between reading and listening was previously only available in standalone interactive book apps. Amazon made it a part of the reading ecosystem.
At the same time immersion reading was introduced, making it possible to listen to Audible audiobooks while simultaneously seeing the text highlighted on the page. ⇢ More info.
A collection of works by Dylan Thomas was the first commercial audiobook, released in 1952 by Caedmon Records.
The recording session took place on February 22, 1952, marking the beginning of the audiobook industry in the United States.
The record included five poems and a holiday story A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The author agreed to an initial fee of $500 for the first 1,000 records and a 10% royalty thereafter. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
In 1999, Simon & Schuster launched ibooks – the first imprint simultaneously publishing books in ebook and print format.
The website, available at that time at ibooksinc.com domain, offered the catalog of 16 titles in total, including the first book about the hit television TV series The Sopranos.
Users could buy print versions via Amazon or Barnes & Noble or read free chapters online. ⇢ More info.
James Patterson is the first-ever writer to sell one million ebooks.
In July 2010, Hachette Book Group announced that James Patterson, the author of the popular Alex Cross and Women’s Murder Club series, had sold 1,141,273 ebooks and was the first one to cross the one million mark.
“afternoon, a story,” published in 1990 on a floppy disk, is one of the first examples of electronic literature.
The novel was written by Michael Joyce in 1987 and announced at the first Association for Computing Machinery Hypertext conference. It is one of the earliest examples of hypertext fiction.
In 1990, Eastgate Systems published the book on a floppy disk. Later on, the novel appeared in other formats, as well: a website, CD-ROM, Mac-compatible USB stick, and downloadable digital file. ⇢ More info.
Within a year since its launch in 2008, Stanza iOS book-reading app was downloaded more than 2 million times.
The same year Steve Jobs said that people didn’t read anymore, Lexcycle’s Stanza book app for iPhone and iPod Touch became one of the most popular in the App Store.
The app offered access to thousands of free public domain books from several sources. It featured many advanced options, including customization, book management, look-up and sharing. Within a year, Stanza users downloaded more than 12 million ebooks. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
Launched in 1993, BiblioBytes website was dedicated to offer paid and free ebooks over the internet.
Initially, the site experimented with ways to sell ebooks, for instance, by organizing giveaways. The first paid titles were available in 1994: Loading Las Vegas by David Hiatt and Tonguing The Zeitgeist by Lance Olsen.
In the next years, BiblioBytes offered mostly free ebooks, with most of them coming from the public domain. In 2000, you could find and read over 370 free publications. ⇢ More info.
Fiske’s reading machine from the 1920s was designed to read printed texts miniaturized to fit 6×2 inch cards.
This portable device was invented by Bradley Allen Fiske. It featured a magnifying lens to enlarge the text. There was also an adjustable metal cover to shield the other eye.
Electronic books as described by a sci-fi writer Stanisław Lem in 1961.
In a classic science fiction novel Return from the Stars, first published in 1961, Stanisław Lem imagined electronic books – optons and lectons – and bookstores selling them. ⇢ More info.
The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They can be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons – like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation.
In 2012, a Bucharest subway station was turned into the digital library where you could download free ebooks and audiobooks using QR codes.
The walls of Victoria Square metro station were covered with large-format posters resembling library bookshelves. Commuters entering the station suddenly found themselves in an impressive library.
The world’s longest audiobook ever recorded is 2,441 hours long. It’s 10 months of listening.
The audiobook was created to promote the teachings of yogi guru Lord Swaminarayan. If you were listening to it for 8 hours a day, you would be able to finish it in 10 months.
The recording started in 2011 and took over 6 years. The audiobook was registered in the Guinness Book of Records in October 2017. ⇢ More info.
Sony LIBRIé, the first e-reader using E-Ink screen, was launched in April 2004 in Japan.
The device was a joint project of Sony, Philips, and E-Ink. It featured a 6-inch display with 4 levels of gray (SVGA, 800×600 px, 170 ppi) and a physical keyboard with a row of function buttons.
Sony LIBRIé was powered by four AAA batteries, which were sufficient to read approximately forty 250-page books. The 10 MB built-in memory allowed to hold up to 500 ebooks. Users could rent books from the dedicated ebook store; the files expired after 60 days. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
Stieg Larsson, the author of the bestselling Millennium Trilogy, is the first author to sell over one million Kindle books.
On July 27, 2010, Amazon announced that Stieg Larsson has become the first member of the new Kindle Million Club. The club recognizes authors who sold over 1 million copies of their books in the Kindle Store.
Two books from the Millennium series are on the list of top 10 Kindle best sellers of all time. The second author to sell over 1 million Kindle ebooks, James Patterson, joined Larsson in the Kindle Million Club in October 2010. ⇢ More info.
The first ever spoken-word sound recording took place in 1877, when Thomas Edison recorded a nursery rhyme on his newly invented phonograph.
In 1877, Edison was working on a machine that would be able to play a previously recorded sound.
When he received a machine prototype from his mechanic, Edison immediately tested it by speaking “Mary Had a Little Lamb” nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece. The phonograph played his words back to him! ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
Microfilm Book Stand was a concept device from 1935 designed to read miniature photographs of book pages.
The invention was presented in the April issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics. The reading stand included a screen that reproduced enlarged text, buttons to adjust size and focus, and a handle to set the proper angle.
The first-generation Kindle, released on November 19, 2007, was sold out in 5.5 hours and remained unavailable for 5 months.
The first-ever Kindle ($399) was equipped with the 6-inch grayscale E-Ink display and 250 MB of internal storage, which could hold approximately hold 200 non-illustrated ebooks.
Due to the heavy customer demand, the Kindle was sold out within 5.5 hours of its release. Amazon promised to bring it back on November 29, but the device remained out of stock until April 2008. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
In 1998, Michael S. Hart predicted the rise of tablets and digital education.
In 1998, in an interview for Wired Magazine, Michael Stern Hart, the legendary founder of Project Gutenberg, was asked whether he was creating ebooks so that people could print them out. He answered:
No. Nobody’s going to print these books out. 20 or 30 years from now, there’s going to be some gizmo that kids carry around in their back pocket that has everything in it – including our books, if they want.
No doubt, this is the description of the tablets, as we know them. ⇢ More info.
The world’s first ebook was created on Xerox Sigma V computer, worth $300,000.
In 1971, Michael Stern Hart was given access to extensive computer time on the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois. On this computer he created the first ebook in the world – The US Declaration of Independence.
Xerox Sigma V was produced by Scientific Data Systems (SDS) since 1967, and cost $300,000. Its initial memory size was 16K. One of the Sigma V computers is exhibited at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
In 2015, James Patterson released the first self-destruct countdown ebook in the world.
As a part of marketing activities for his technothriller Private Vegas, James Patterson started a clever promotion using a specially designed self-destructing app.
On a special website, 1,000 codes were offered at random pre-determined times. With the code, you could download Private Vegas ebook app to your iPad. The book was available for 24 hours from the time of activation. A countdown clock was displaying the time until the book blew up. ⇢ More info.
The first electronic spell checker was launched in 1986 by Franklin Computer.
Spelling Ace SA-88 sold at $89. The device could check 80,000 American English words provided by Merriam Webster. The algorithm considered both typographical and phonetic misspelling.
“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” was a stunning iPad app that set a new standard for interactive children books.
Developed by Pixar ex-designer and released in 2011, the Morris Lessmore app featured several interactive and multimedia elements, such as embedded music, games, lessons, and quizzes, combined in an immersive story.
This brilliant app showed all the advantages of ebooks, creating a completely new, highly involving reading experience for users of all ages. ⇢ More info.
Memex, a concept of electromechanical desk from 1945, proposed a mechanized way to access and link books at exceeding speed.
Described by Vannevar Bush in his essay “As We May Think,” the device was an answer to a previously unknown problem: information overload.
Memex would instantly bring compressed microfiche texts on any subject and link them together to allow knowledge to be more structured and serve as an enlarged supplement to the user’s memory. ⇢ More info. ⇢ Photo credit.
Revealed in 1998, EveryBook Dedicated Reader was planned to be the first e-reader with two portrait screens resembling a traditional book.
The world’s “first true electronic book” was supposed to be used like a book, with the right screen offering the option to make own notes. It would be also capable of opening pdf documents used by publishers to print paper books.
Three EBDR devices were to be released in 1999, with the largest one for professionals supposed to be priced between $1,000 and $1,500. ⇢ More info.
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Don’t stop exploring. Here are other lists from our Best 50 series:
50 brilliant posters that encourage to read books
– July 28, 2021
50 classic bookish words modern book lovers could use more often
– April 15, 2021
50 newest quotes coined for modern book lovers
– March 1, 2021
50 clever cartoons for people who love books and reading
– February 12, 2021
50 best Kindle covers and sleeves – the 2020-21 edition
– November 23, 2020