By Edzer Huitema and Ian French
It was the end of 2008, October, right before the holiday shopping season. Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey released her highly anticipated Favorite Things list, with the Amazon Kindle topping the gadget category.
This is the moment that the concept of electronic paper, or e-paper, went mainstream.
But this black-and-white, reflective display that always appeared to be on was invented well before the Amazon Kindle made it famous. Its story began a decade earlier, in 1997, at the MIT Media Lab, when it was created by two students, J.D. Albert and Barrett Comiskey, who were inspired by their professor Joseph Jacobson.
From the very beginning, e-paper seemed magical. It was easy on the eyes, even outdoors and in bright sunlight, where other portable displays became unreadable. It could go weeks between charges while mobiles equipped with other displays barely made it through a day (some of them still barely make it through a day). Yet its limitation was obvious—images could appear only in black and white. In a world that hadn’t seen a monochrome display in a very long time—TVs made the switch in the 1960s, computer monitors in the late ’80s—a monochrome display was definitely quaintly old school.