RIP Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart

Sad news: Michael Hart, who founded Project Gutenberg in 1971, died this week.
201109080842 Michael Stern Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington on March 8, 1947. He died on September 6, 2011 in his home in Urbana, Illinois, at the age of 64. His is survived by his mother, Alice, and brother, Bennett. Michael was an Eagle Scout (Urbana Troop 6 and Explorer Post 12), and served in the Army in Korea during the Vietnam era.

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.

In 1998, I wrote a short profile of Hart for Wired:
Michael Hart Builds A Digital Athenaeum

Michael Hart says he really doesn't have time to talk today, or any day before 2000, for that matter: "I'm doing two books right now. I'm really busy." "Doing" doesn't mean "writing," however: Hart is formatting the scanned text of William Osler's The Evolution of Modern Medicine and The Last Days of Pompeii, by Charles Bulwer Lytton, to add to Project Gutenberg's existing library of 1,600 volumes. Every week, Hart's working overtime to meet his quota of 36 books per month and 2,000 by Y2K. The result (www.promo.net/) will be something of a digital Library of Alexandria, with Hart its Demetrius.

Since 1971, when he was given extensive time on a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois's Materials Research Lab, Hart (with volunteer help) has been scanning the pages of copyright-expired books and uploading them for free distribution. Why? So people can burn up toner cartridges printing them?

"No. Nobody's going to print these books out," says Hart. "Twenty or 30 years from now, there's going to be some gizmo that kids carry around in their back pocket that has everything in it - including our books, if they want." Actually, some of these gizmos already exist. So it's really no wonder Hart feels pressed for time. - Mark Frauenfelder

Obituary for Michael Stern Hart

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  1. Sad to read a BB obituary for a guy who clearly did some awesome shit for the world, but great to see a man who DID do some awesome shit be honored. What this guy did, slaving in the shadows (sort of), is REAL accomplishment, real work, and I hope he is remembered for it long after Justin Bieber is forgotten.

  2. 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

    Actually, how easy is this to do today? While I certainly have downloaded a few PG books over the years, originally for my Palm Pilot in the late 1990s, and now for my phone and e-reader, is there an easy way to download everything? Just because it would be cool — I’d imagine it would probably only be a few hundred gigs at most.

    (Yes, Hart was a true pioneer and it’s sad that he died, I’m not trying to lessen that by asking a practical question)

    1. You can download the entire catalog with only a small amount of technical savvy, as explained here:
      http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:Information_About_Robot_Access_to_our_Pages#Getting_All_EBook_FilesThat page says that in 2004, the (zipped) text library totaled 14.5 GB. It’s probably significantly larger now, but text files take up very little space.They also compile CD and DVD images that probably contain everything you could want from their catalog and that can be downloaded via BitTorrent:
      http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:The_CD_and_DVD_Project

  3. What a loss.  It’s people like him that make futurism genuinely exciting.  There goes a man that made the world a better place.

  4. Project Gutenberg was a brilliant idea that created a template for a lot that has happened since. Godspeed to this man.

  5. I’m an adjunct in a philosophy department, and for the past several semesters I have compiled a course-pack for my intro classes using Project Gutenberg.  It saves the students a ton of  money on textbooks, and all the classic readings are there.

    Mr.  Hart was a great man who contributed to the life of the mind in a very real and important way.  I am very saddened by this news.  I owe the man quite a lot.

  6. One of Michael’s very endearing quirks (as remembered by someone in the MetaFilter obituary thread) was that he wrote e-mails in paragraphs that were right-justified without adding spaces. We will miss him.

  7. Very sorry to hear.  I met Michael around 1997 when I was the Director of Operations at Internet Archive.  Of course Brewster was talking to him about how IA can help host the project. “Driven” would be an understatement about Michael.   You can’t not be infected by his energy when you are around him. He had a vision on that changed access to millions of texts and books around the world.  Thank you Michael.

  8. RIP the man responsible for filling my iPad with great works of literature, poetry and philosophy that I will forever feel guilty about not getting around to reading :-)

  9. Oh how sad! I was a PG volunteer when I worked on the U of I campus back in the late 90’s/early2000. Mike was SUCH a great guy!  We always had so much fun going to football games and throwing out CD’s with ebooks on them during halftime. RIP Michael!

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