This week Project Gutenberg announced that its founder, Michael S. Hart, had died at the age of 64. You may not know the name… but you are probably familiar with Michael’s work, particularly if you’ve ever read an eBook. Michael believed that the great written works of the world should be freely available, and freely accessible, regardless of device. Project Gutenberg — founded on his philosophy — this week published his obituary:
Hart was best known for his 1971 invention of electronic books, or eBooks. He founded Project Gutenberg, which is recognized as one of the earliest and longest-lasting online literary projects. He often told this story of how he had the idea for eBooks. He had been granted access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On July 4 1971, after being inspired by a free printed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he decided to type the text into a computer, and to transmit it to other users on the computer network. From this beginning, the digitization and distribution of literature was to be Hart’s life’s work, spanning over 40 years.
Hart was an ardent technologist and futurist. A lifetime tinkerer, he acquired hands-on expertise with the technologies of the day: radio, hi-fi stereo, video equipment, and of course computers. He constantly looked into the future, to anticipate technological advances. One of his favorite speculations was that someday, everyone would be able to have their own copy of the Project Gutenberg collection or whatever subset desired. This vision came true, thanks to the advent of large inexpensive computer disk drives, and to the ubiquity of portable mobile devices, such as cell phones.
It wasn’t technology alone that brought about Hart’s vision, of course, but his own passion. He should be remembered for his work in the cause of literacy and the protections of the public domain. And for a vast, free and freely accessible library.