I heard the sad news on Wednesday that Michael S. Hart had passed away at 64. Who is Michael S. Hart you may ask? He is the founder of Project Gutenburg (PG), which is one of the earliest and longest-lasting online literary projects. The picture for this article is a screen grab of “ebook #1” the Declaration of Independence added in 1971. That’s right, 1971. If you have ever enjoyed an e-book, you have Michael S. Hart to thank.
You can read a complete obituary over at Project Gutenberg written by Greg Newby, The web sites seems to be up and down, so I’ll share the highlights after the jump.
The obit mentions him as the “inventor of electronic books”. Seeing as he started this all in 1971, I can’t figure who could contest that title. From the obit:
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.
Starting from these very humble beginnings, PG has grown to over 36,000 titles and is hosted in 60 different languages. I remember discovering it when I was looking for books to read on my PalmPilot Personal. That seems so long ago, and yet PG had already been around for over a quarter century at that point. I have read numerous novels by Alexandre Dumas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells as well as many historical works like the Memoirs of Gen. William T Sherman. In fact, I recall cutting and pasting OCR errors I discovered into a Palm Memo to send to PG for updates to that book, and how courteous the owner was in receiving them. He even gave me a little credit in the header for the proofreading. That highlights, to me, one of the lasting impacts of PG. The sense of being able to contribute to the project. My contribution is incredibly minor, but still is a source of pride to me.
It has been incredible to see his creation evolve. He was a passionate ASCII text advocate, but over time allowed other more accessible and nuanced formats to exist side by side. The passion he instilled in the volunteers, and the development over years is truly inspirational. When you think of leaving your mark, he did it.
So next time you sit down to read an e-book, take a few moments to remember this pioneer. I cannot say it any better than Greg Newby, so I will end with a quote from his obit:
Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.