Around 250,000 books will be put on line as part of a deal between the British Library and search engine Google.
The works, which are all out of copyright, date from between 1700 and 1870 and have been selected by the library to be digitised by Google.
Among the first works to go online are a pamphlet about French Queen Marie Antoinette and Spanish inventor Narciso Monturiol's 1858 plans for one of the world's first submarines.
Library chief executive Dame Lynne Brindley said: "In the 19th century it was an ambition of our predecessors to give everybody access to as much of the world's information as possible, to ensure that knowledge was not restricted to those who could afford private libraries. The way of doing it then was to buy books from the entire world and to make them available in reading rooms.
"We are delighted to be partnering with Google on this project and through this partnership believe that we are building on this proud tradition of giving access to anyone, anywhere and at any time. Our aim is to provide perpetual access to this historical material, and we hope that our collections coupled with Google's know-how will enable us to achieve this aim."
The books will be available online at Google Books and on the British Library's website.
Director of external relations at Google Peter Barron said: "What's powerful about the technology available to us today isn't just its ability to preserve history and culture for posterity, but also its ability to bring it to life in new ways. This public domain material is an important part of the world's heritage and we're proud to be working with the British Library to open it up to millions of people in the UK and abroad."