From pages to pixels, the invention of the eReader

    JD Albert

    JD Albert

    This piece is part of our “Rebirth Of The Library” show. Take a look at the rest of our stories here.

    JD Albert wasn’t picturing the eReaders we know today when he started work on his breakthrough technology.

    Rather than a flat device with a screen on one side, his initial aim was a product that looked like an actual book with turnable pages, but every page would be an individual thin screen.

    In hindsight, not such a good approach.

    “Often, when you are working on new technology, it helps to have something bold that you are going for,” says Albert, 40, director of engineering for product development firm Bresslergroup.

    While that multi-screen initiative fell short, the core technology inside of eReaders–the electronic ink–wasn’t too far off.

    Discovered in 1997 while studying at MIT, Albert’s e-ink is now the gold standard for just about every eReader on the market, including Amazon’s Kindle.

    “When you look at an Amazon Kindle, you are actually looking at millions of tiny microcapsules, which you can think of as a little, clear sphere. And inside that sphere, is oil, clear oil, and black and white particles that are oppositely charged,” he says.

    Albert and his colleagues at MIT figured out a way to send an electric charge to some spheres, the opposite charge to others, so that letters would appear in black on the screen. Change the charge, you change the letters.

    “So there’s a lot of things about the electronic ink technology that are a huge benefit for reading. One is that it is reflective. So an iPad, an iPhone, any other cell phone, the displays are emissive, they give off light, and that is of course, in contrast to books and newspapers and paper that use the ambient light in the room,” says Albert.


    Magnified view of the ink used in eReaders. (Courtesy of JD Albert) 

    And once the particles are nudged into position, they stay there, with no additional power required.

    “So a Kindle typically will give you weeks or months of reading time, as opposed to your iPad which is pretty much dead after maybe eight hours.”

    That long battery life along with the later development of a full-color ink have helped eReaders solidify their place in the publishing ecosystem. There are an estimated 70 million of them in use worldwide.

    “To work on something that becomes as ubiquitous as eBooks have is a really special thing. Just the other day, I was on my bike next to a Septa bus, and I saw a woman sitting on the bus reading an eBook, and everytime I see that, I think, wow, that didn’t exist before we made that happen.”

    Later this year, Albert, along with two of his MIT colleagues, Barrett Comiskey and Joseph Jacobson, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but it is recognition that their vision for next-generation books has had a tremendous impact on the industry.

    “Our line was kind of that we were trying to not kill books, but kill paper,” says Albert. “Our hope was that this would cause people to read more. It has been interesting to see how both things have happened. People are buying plenty of eBooks, but they are also still buying plenty of normal books. For the holidays, I give people paper books. So, I like both technologies.”

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