RIP Michael S. Hart

Michael S. Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, died at his home in Urbana, Illinois last Tuesday at the age of 64. He was one of the original digital visionaries, a true man of the people who believed that public domain text should live up to its name and be accessible to all. Unlike any number of forward-thinking electronic pioneers, though, he never made money off his ideas—Project Gutenberg is free to everyone, and run entirely by volunteers—and lived a life that was by all accounts modest, in a house filled with stacks of board-and-paper books.

Hart always claimed to have simply been “at the right place at the right time.” In 1971, while he was studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a friend who worked on the Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer at the Materials Research Lab offered him an operator’s account with $100,000,000 worth of computer time. He wanted to make good on the gift, and hit on the idea of eText. Hart happened to have a grocery store giveaway copy of the Declaration of Independence, typed it in, and stopped just short of disaster:

I envisioned sending the Declaration of Independence to everyone on the Net… all 100 of them… which would have crashed the whole thing, but luckily Fred Ranck stopped me, and we just posted a notice in what would later become comp.gen. I think about 6 out of the 100 users at the time downloaded it…

And so Project Gutenberg came into being as a repository of free online text, accessible to all. (Hart’s second choice of name was “Project Alexandria,” but explained that the Alexandrians collected books, while the Gutenberg printers created them.) Between 1971 and 1993 he produced 100 eTexts, and then a few thousand within another nine years. They were originally written in what he termed Plain Vanilla ASCII, in order to be readable on any platform—“the audience with Apples and Ataris all the way to the old homebrew Z80 computers, while an audience of Mac, UNIX and mainframers is still included.” And the scholarship, at least at the outset, was a little to this side of rigorous. From a 1992 statement:

We do not write for the reader who cares whether a certain phrase in Shakespeare has a “:” or a “;” between its clauses. We put our sights on a goal to release etexts that are 99.9% accurate in the eyes of the general reader. Given the preferences your proofreaders have, and the general lack of reading ability the public is currently reported to have, we probably exceed those requirements by a significant amount. However, for the person who wants an “authoritative edition” we will have to wait some time until this becomes more feasible.

Project Gutenberg works now come in a variety of formats, including HTML, PDF, ePub and Kindle, and the accuracy has generally improved over the years. But I can still remember, in my earliest days of being online, discovering that I could grab myself some Mark Twain and Alice in Wonderland, free of charge—it’s hard to remember what a big deal the concept of “free” was in those days, and how utterly exciting. Hart lived to see his life’s work take off in all sorts of wonderful directions, to revolutionize publishing and information science and reading as a whole. Certainly someone else would have come up with the idea if he hadn’t, but not necessarily with the same generosity of spirit. Glyn Moody, writing in Computerworld UK, called Hart “the original prophet of digital abundance.” He was a Utopian Socialist in the gentlest sense of the term; the project’s original mission statements were as follows:

Encourage the Creation and Distribution of eBooks
Help Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy
Give As Many eBooks to As Many People As Possible

Project Gutenberg, which now holds over 36,000 free works, remains as low-fi and egalitarian as ever. It still runs on volunteer power and it still holds a treasure trove of books you never knew you wanted until you realized you could have them. RIP and thank you, Michael Hart.

(Photo courtesy of “Marcello” at Gutenberg.org/Creative Commons.)

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2 Comments to RIP Michael S. Hart

  1. PatD's Gravatar PatD
    September 12, 2011 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    Oh, man. The Project was one of the earliest reference sources I frequented when I first came online back in ’95.

    RIP, Michael Hart. You were well named.

  2. Karen W's Gravatar Karen W
    September 12, 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    This is terrific, Lisa. Yeah, better to have 95 percent or so Shakespeare than none at all.

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