Michael S. Hart is gone, but his work lives on
Futurist and technophile pioneer Michael S. Hart was never afraid to dream. When he founded the Gutenberg Project at age 24 in 1971, the term “open source” had not entered the popular vocabulary, and Linus Torvalds was approaching his second birthday.
But Mr. Hart’s modest project grew into a massive work that would have a great impact on Mr. Torvalds and the open source movement. It also was arguably the first effort to digitize books or create so-called “e-books” (electronic books).
Mr. Hart died this week at age 64, and the Gutenberg Project, still very active with 36,000 works in its collection, published his obituary. The site wrote:
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….
Michael prided himself on being unreasonable, and only in the later years of life did he mellow sufficiently to occasionally refrain from debate. Yet, his passion for life, and all the things in it, never abated.
Frugal to a fault, Michael glided through life with many possessions and friends, but very few expenses. He used home remedies rather than seeing doctors. He fixed his own house and car. He built many computers, stereos, and other gear, often from discarded components.
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, the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.
In July 2011, Michael wrote these words, which summarize his goals and his lasting legacy: “One thing about eBooks that most people haven’t thought much is that eBooks are the very first thing that we’re all able to have as much as we want other than air. Think about that for a moment and you realize we are in the right job.”
To this day, Project Gutenberg offers all its works free of charge. A guiding principal of the project is to include at least one copy of every work in the collection in plain text, which should be accessible from any users’ computer.
Mr. Hart is also remembered as a guiding member of the RepRap Project, a project to create 3D printers capable of reproducing themselves, and thus inching a step closer to a “living” manmade synthetic construct.