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