It was announced today, on International Literacy Day, that one of the great pioneers of electronic literacy and the inventor of the e-book had died on Tuesday.
In 1971, Michael Hart was a student at the University of Illinois when he was given unlimited computer time on a huge Xerox mainframe computer in the Materials Research lab (probably because his brother's best friend was one of its operators.) The value of this gift, given the huge expense of buying and running such machines, he later calculated to be around $100,000,000.
Hart tried to come up with a good use of the computer time he had been given. The machine was used primarily for data processing, but it was also connected to ARPAnet, a part of what would later become the internet.
When Hart was given a copy of the Declaration of Independence at a grocery store in the buildup to the local fireworks on July 4th, he found his inspiration.
He typed the text into a computer, all in capitals as there was no lower-case option at the time, and sent out a message on ARPAnet saying that it was now available to download. Six people took him up on the offer. The world's first e-book was born.
He followed this beginning by keying in and then sharing other texts in the public domain: the Bill of Rights, then the entire Constitution and "The Bible". Though he had since graduated college, Michael Hart had found himself a mission: to digitize and make available information that was in the public domain.
It's significant that his idea occurred so early in the development of computers and networks. Part of what sets the internet apart from other milestones in publishing is its potential for free and reproducible distribution of information. As Hart wrote in July this year, "e-books are the very first thing that we're all able to have as much as we want other than air."
The 100th text made available via what Hart later called Project Gutenberg, "The Complete Works of Shakespeare", appeared online in 1994. By this point, the internet and the web had been invented, and Hart eagerly utilized them to distribute the works. In 1997, the 1000th Project Gutenberg book, Dante's "Divine Comedy" in the original Italian, was uploaded.
As of 20 July this year, there were 36,701 texts in more than 60 different languages available via Project Gutenberg, which became a non-profit in 2000. Their mission statement is straightforward: To encourage the creation and distribution of e-books. Project Gutenberg's books are now downloadable on the Kindle, Nook, iPhone and Android phones, as well as on personal computers, or via print-on-demand services. As Hart wrote in 2004, "we are happy to bring e-books to our readers in as many formats as our volunteers wish to make."
Texts are usually scanned in from books that are in the public domain, and then checked by volunteers around the globe. Most are public domain books, though some have been donated to the project by their copyright holders. Their most popular book, with 25,545 downloads as of today, is "Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana", followed by "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" and "Pride and Prejudice".
Before Hart's creation, the public domain was mostly of interest to libraries, small publishers and academics. Though the Internet Archive has more resources and hosts more free books than Project Gutenberg, it was the vision of Michael Hart, and his fundamental belief in both literacy and access to information despite many setbacks, which helped to shape the world of electronic books in which we live today.
On his personal webpage, Hart wrote:
"If what you did yesterday Still seems great today, Then your goals for tomorrow Are not big enough.”
Michael Hart was 64 years old.
The story behind Project Gutenberg in this article was compiled from "The Project Gutenberg EBook of Project Gutenberg (1971-2008)" by Marie Lebert, Michael Hart's Obituary on the Project Gutenberg site and The History and Philosophy of Project Gutenberg by Michael Hart.