No one knows for sure when the concept of an electronic book came into existence, but ebooks in one form or another were in existence long before Google 'invented' them in 2004. The argument could be settled very easily if everyone was willing to agree on what is meant by a 'book.' The first use of an electronic retrieval system dates back to 1969 when the manufacturer of a computer placed help files on board their system. It didn't take long for this to catch on because it was cheaper, and much easier to search through an online data base than to thumb through the pages of a book for some elusive piece of data.
If you define the term book to mean something like the thick tomes that William Shakespeare wrote, then you can trace the first electronic book to Michael S. Hart's Gutenberg project where he entered over 300 manuscripts into his system by hand. With the help of a group of volunteers, he later expanded this to over 100,000 different volumes, starting with Shakespeare, the Bible, and then to other classic works.
Starting in 2004, Google offered a system that would make electronic books available in a more accessible format. Many people were reluctant to read a long book from a computer screen. There was also the possibility of being able to market a lot of books if two things were offered to the reader. One was a smaller sized reader. How small? The ideal choice seemed to be something the size and shape of the average book. The Kindle ebook reader went one better when they redesigned the case where it was tapered on the edges and more comfortable to hold. Another desirable feature was to be able to carry a whole library of books in one reader. One long novel is approximately one megabyte in length. With chips capable to holding a couple of terabytes, the ebook reader suddenly became very attractive for the man or woman on the go.
The first ebook readers had the same problem of eye strain many people were familiar with from many hours of computer use at the office. Todays ebook readers use a technology very similar to what is used to produce the numbers on the face of a watch. This results in a system that produces little eye strain and looks very similar to a hardbound book. It also saves a lot of trees.
Would I recommend an ebook reader? To that question I will give an unequivocal maybe. The price is still unacceptably high for most people, but the prices are likely to come down as is the price of the books. In the next few years most books will probably be available in both paper and digital format. Will the printed book go the way of the Dodo bird? Not in the foreseeable future and perhaps never. There is something comforting about a book that you can't get from a plastic case, and I haven't found a way to dog-ear the pages in an electronic book.