The international desk of the New York Daily News published a story today that … how can I possibly put this? Let me just say that as someone who edits a website about e-reading news, I honestly can’t imagine that I will ever come across a more picture-perfect example of exactly the sort of story I’m looking for when I go trolling the Web for ideas each day. This story really is that perfect. (Thank you, Lee Moran of the Daily News. I owe you a beer!)

Anyway, here’s the basic gist of the story:

Back in 1949, a Spanish woman by the name of María José Rodríguez Fortiz Ángela Ruiz Robles created a prototype of a device that was basically a very crude and primitive version of today’s e-reader. “It reportedly had a zoom function,” Moran writes, “where readers could focus in on a particular area of the text.”

The article also explains that “the device worked with pressurized air, allowing readers to add different spools containing the pre-loaded content.” Moran writes that “[Fortiz’s Ruiz’s] main goal was to reduce the weight of books in students’ school bags, and she believed the gadget would make reading more accessible to all.”

The 54-year-old Fortiz Ruiz called her device (she’s displaying it in the photo at right), and according to the Daily News story, she even applied for a patent. Unfortunately, her patent request was denied. And because she was never able to secure enough funding to take the Mechanical Encyclopedia into a production phase, it was never mass-produced or made available to the public. According to the story, “the prototype is now in the National Museum of Science and Technology in La Coruña, [Spain].”

Click here to read the piece for yourself.

UPDATE & REQUEST: I’ve found what appears to be a very detailed blog post about Ángela Ruiz Robles and her Mechanical Encyclopedia, but unfortunately, it’s written in Spanish. If any of you who happen to be fluent in Spanish would consider translating even a paragraph or two of the article, we’d be hugely appreciative. The article in question, by the way, is posted on the website of El Pais, which is generally considered to be the best newspaper in Spain, so I’d venture to guess that it’s probably a well-written and informative article, and worth translating. Any takers? If so, you’ll find the article here. Gracias.


  1. Actually, according to the original article, the inventor was Ángela Ruiz Robles. Ms. Fortiz was a language instructor talking ABOUT Ms. Ruiz Robles. The original article is a bit loose w/its pronouns, so the confusion is excusable – but credit where credit’s due.

  2. Juli: I could be wrong — the NY Daily News article unfortunately didn’t go into much detail about the device itself — but I don’t believe there was anything electronic about it at all.

    In fact, I should have been clearer about that in the post, but from what I can gather, it was basically an analog precursor to the e-reader of today. I found some old photos of it online that do show a bit more detail, and it looks like the “spools with pre-loaded content” that were mentioned in the article were essentially very small scrolls. A book, for instance, would be printed on a very long, continuous strip of paper and wrapped around a small spool.

    As for the article’s mention of “a zoom function,” I don’t know what that means, but I’ll bet it was something like a magnifying glass. At any rate, I’m going to try to speak with someone at the museum in La Coruña, where this thing is housed, to see if I can’t get a better explanation about the device itself and/or its history.

  3. Well, a quick and dirty translation of the beginning of the article:

    The Hispanic origins of the electronic reader: Angela Ruiz Robles or the innovation in teaching.

    By Daniel Gonzalez de la Rivera Grandal and Juan Jose Moreno Navarro

    A country can be described by how it treats his great people when they are alive and after death. Newton remainings are in the Westminster Abbey, next to kings, prime ministers and other great Britain people. The great mathematician Alan Turing has received praise after his death, although not yet forgiveness for his incarceration. Paris pantheon of illustrious people boasts of having the graves of the greatest French minds, among them a high number of scientists and inventors, as Marie Curie (two times Nobel price winner), Pierre Curie (Nobel price winner) or Louis Braille.

    Unfortunately, Spain case is different, and the difference is not in how it sends away it best minds but the lack of recognition both to the person and to his contributions. We could show various examples, but we will set on one where her imagination only falls short of the ignorance about her inventions. Moreover it is paradigmatic on some problems of research and development and education of this country. We are referring to Angela Ruiz Robles. You don’t recognize this name? Surprisingly this teacher born in Leon should be recorded in history books as the electronic book inventor. Regrettably all the praise (and the economic benefits that it carries) is for Michael Hart, that is seen as its inventor in 1971. But long time before, in 1949, Angela Ruiz Robles filed a patent (patent number 190.698) and developed a further prototype of her mechanic book.

    Well, the article continues after that, if a quick google translate hints of something of your interest, say it and I can translate that part.

  4. Print books are much more difficult to patrie (or whatever the word is) than are ebooks simply because of the tediousness involved in copying them. Granted, perhaps since the Xerox machine was invented, students have been photocopying entire textbooks at a fraction of the cost of what they would have paid for the book itself albeit not for free. At a dime per page, a 400-page textbook works out to $40, which is maybe half or even a third of what they’d have paid at the bookstore. There’s also the time involved in flipping the book over, turning the pages, re-copying them if some end up upside down, and so forth.But with the rapid-fire, instant-gratification simplicity of ebooks, the same relative ease with which an author can upload his/her book to Amazon, Smashwords, etc., so too can a self-described hacktivist be the martyr for his cause and plunk down the $2-$10 s/he set the price, and upload it in seconds to Pirate’s Bay or Rapidshare. Ebooks take up far less disk space than do movie files or even MP3s a high quality MP3 file in 320kb/s bit rate can be between 8 and 10 megabytes; a 128kb/s file, by contrast, somewhere between 4-6 MBs. Movie files such as .mp4 and .avi can be anywhere between 700 MB and 1 GB; full DVDs range between 4 and 9 gigabytes, while for Blu-Ray files, the sky’s practically the limit.Meaning? Ebooks can actually fit in an email attachment if the government ever manages to shut down Rapidshare and Pirate’s Bay. There’s no way the feds or EU will close Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail, and a .zip file of ebooks might come well under the usually 20MB/file (or total) limit for attachments. The only file types usually barred from being sent are executable files (programs or scripts) ending with extensions such as .vbs, .exe, .dmg or .run. Archive files, such as .rar, .zip and .7z are usually OK, which makes it easy to hide patried ebooks in archives for easy sending of copyrighted material, practically undetected even by the email service itself (if password-protected archives are used). So an archive named Legal might contain John Grisham’s entire biography, even though its file name looks relatively innocuous, as though someone from a law firm were sending it to a colleague.The example above shows that media patries are arguably as creative as writers/artists, but much lazier, in that they only seek to distribute the wealth of other people’s work rather than coming up with anything original themselves. Coelho and Doctorow are doing a disservice to content creators by blatantly sleeping with the enemy here, distributing their own works via these otherwise illicit channels as an effort to show how legit Pirate’s Bay and the patrie movement are as a whole. It may be no more than a drop in the bucket for Grisham, or even for Coelho and Doctorow, but it’s a significant loss for authors, one that I believe turns people away from, or at least ignites fear, of losing sales to the free, libre open-source socialism so-called revolution. Pirate’s Bay doesn’t want to go legit. It sees no problem with giving away things that people need and deserve to be paid for, and that they have NOT, in most cases, authorized permission to give away for free.Paper may not save trees, but it saves books and protects authors. Self-pub is not necessarily the enemy; digital documents are that contain copyrighted material. If there were viable self-pub solutions that allowed authors to choose whether or not they allowed e-books as part of their overall supply of material, then that would be mutually beneficial. Also, if there could be some solution worked out that prevented digital documents from being illegally distributed without permission from the author not to mention if there could be some viable solution that shut down sites like Pirate’s Bay and forced it out of business (ironically, it is one of the most profitable websites on the Internet today, which is a real hoot considering its entire mission is to give things away for free).Compare the free cost of pirating a .pdf or .epub not to mention the tedious effort involved in flipping paper books over on a Xerox machine to the ~$20-$40 involved in Xeroxing a book PER COPY, and the hours spent Xeroxing it paper is clearly the solution when it comes to curbing piracy. I wish Amazon, Smashwords, etc. enabled would-be authors to bypass e-books when submitting to their website, and that they only functioned as a POD catalogue of sorts that one could still self-pub with Amazon and have your book available for purchase on its site but NOT as an e-book if one so chooses.Sorry if I would like to make a full-time living from my writing now that the agency model is closing its doors to newbies all for good, and not be forced give things away just because it’s art or because teenage punks bullying people on 4chan want something for nothing and don’t care who they hurt.

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