From Scrolls to Ebooks: The Invention of Books

Storytelling has existed almost as long as human language has. Storytelling was a communal act that sought to impart knowledge, to warn the community of danger or simply to entertain. Early forms of storytelling were typically oral, and included songs, dance, and poetry. One important form of storytelling that has emerged in modern society has been through the power of books. Books did not always exist, so how did they come about?

From Papyrus Scrolls to Books

Early civilizations documented stories through cave drawings and stone carvings. With the development of written language and materials that were ideal for writing, early civilizations began producing precursors to the book. For example, the ancient Egyptians documented their stories on papyrus scrolls, and the Romans invented the codex. The Chinese were the first to produce printed books with a technique called woodblock printing. Text and designs were carved into a block of wood, inked, and pressed against paper, leaving an impression of words and pictures on paper.

These ancient methods of producing books were, however, terribly inefficient as they had to be handwritten. It was not until the 15th century that books were mass produced. German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg introduced the mechanical movable-type printing press, which streamlined the printing process by allowing adjustable characters to be inked and used repeatedly. Although Gutenberg might not have been the first to invent movable type printing in the world, he was the first to introduce it in Europe. His invention started the Printing Revolution in Europe, ushering an era of mass communication that allowed the dissemination of knowledge amongst the public.

From Physical to Electronic Books

Today, books are readily available to us. A wide variety of genres, from history to science to graphic novels, await us in bookshops and libraries. Although reading a physical book is comforting to many, another contender for modern reading has emerged over the past couple of years. The option to purchase books in electronic format, also known as ebooks, are almost always available alongside the physical format. In fact, many classics are being published in ebook format to reach a wider audience.

Ebooks are undoubtedly convenient and functional. You can store up to thousands of ebooks on your ereader or other digital devices, allowing you to access numerous books without having to lug them around. Formatting, such as font type and size, can be changed at the tip of your finger, increasing readability for those who have trouble reading small fonts and allowing readers to have the most comfortable reading experience. The dictionary and highlight functions are useful when readers encounter and document words that they are unfamiliar with. Ebooks also have the potential to increase general readership. They are often cheaper than physical books, and are freely available from the library or foundations that aim to encourage reading. In fact, the precursor to the ereader was invented to help students learn better.

The first automated reader was invented by Ángela Ruiz Robles, a school teacher in Spain who noticed that her students had to lug around heavy textbooks daily and wanted to lighten their load. She also sought to help her students learn better by finding new ways to engage them. Her solution was what she termed the Mechanical Encyclopedia, which she invented in 1949. The device operated on compressed air. Text and graphics were printed on spools that readers would load onto rotating spindles. Robles’ project unfortunately never quite took off as she was unable to secure funding for her automated reader to be mass produced for the public.

The invention of the ebook as we know it today is commonly credited to Michael Hart, who created the first ebook by typing out the Declaration of Independence in 1971. Hart began his mission to reduce illiteracy and encourage reading when he was a student at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He was given unlimited computer time with a mainframe computer that was primarily used for data processing, which was also connected to a network that later became part of the internet. Manually typing up texts such as the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and Alice in the Wonderland, Hart worked alone to make these texts available electronically for download. He later founded Project Gutenberg, the first digital library that aims to encourage reading and knowledge seeking by providing free access to books.

In spite of the massive amount of content that is available in today’s world, a significant proportion of Americans are still turning to books. Approximately 73% of Americans reported reading books, a figure that has remained largely unchanged over the years. Although print books remain the most popular format among readers, ebook readership has increased over the years since its first introduction to the general public.

Books have been a powerful medium for storytelling and disseminating knowledge in today’s society. From the invention of papyrus scrolls in ancient Egypt to the modern day ebook, books have played an important role in conveying history, culture, and knowledge.