The world’s first eBook?

Back in 2006 during my term as the Project Gutenberg newsletter editor, I spent some time performing simple statistical analysis on the PG catalog – trying to get clarification on their eText release milestones, among other things – when I stumbled across information about what was possibly the very first digital book to be created. At the time I thought it an interesting fact, but nothing more.

Skip forward nine years and while preparing this book for conversion to the z-epub  library I noticed this again, but this time the importance of the discovery could not be dismissed.

During 1964-65 Dr. Joseph Raben of Queens College, NY, digitized John Milton’s Paradise Lost (probably using “IBM punch cards”). This was a whole six years before Michael Hart wrangled his way on to a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the UI Materials Research Lab, University of Illinois in 1971, and punch in what would become PG eText #1; The Declaration of Independence.

It’s quite difficult to verify if Paradise Lost truly is the very first digital book, but I would still like to take a moment and thank Dr. Raben for this groundbreaking achievement.

Head over to to download my edition of Paradise Lost, the first ever ebook, or go take a look at Project Gutenberg’s edition of that original text here.

There’s a short explanation on the origins of the text in the PG eText, which I think is worth reprinting here;

This etext [Paradise Lost] was originally created in 1964-1965 according to Dr. Joseph Raben of Queens College, NY, to whom it is attributed by Project Gutenberg. We had heard of this etext for years but it was not until 1991 that we actually managed to track it down to a specific location, and then it took months to convince people to let us have a copy, then more months for them actually to do the copying and get it to us. Then another month to convert to something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS. After that is was only a matter of days to get it into this shape you will see below. The original was, of course, in CAPS only, and so were all the other etexts of the 60’s and early 70’s.

In the course of our searches for Professor Raben and his etext we were never able to determine where copies were or which of a variety of editions he may have used as a source. We did get a little information here and there, but even after we received a copy of the etext we were unwilling to release it without first determining that it was in fact Public Domain and finding Raben to verify this and get his permission. Interesting enough, in a totally unrelated action to our searches for him, the professor subscribed to the Project Gutenberg listserver and we happened, by accident, to notice his name. The etext was then properly identified, copyright analyzed, and the current edition prepared.

To give you an estimation of the difference in the original and what we have today: the original was probably entered on cards commonly known at the time as “IBM cards” (Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate) and probably took in excess of 100,000 of them. A single card could hold 80 characters (hence 80 characters is an accepted standard for so many computer margins), and the entire original edition we received in all caps was over 800,000 chars in length, including line enumeration, symbols for caps and the punctuation marks, etc., since they were not available keyboard characters at the time (probably the keyboards operated at baud rates of around 113, meaning the typists had to type slowly for the keyboard to keep up).

Project Gutenberg eText #26; a piece of history!

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