The man who brought e-books to life

I was sorry to read of the death of Michael Hart. He was a – no, the seminal figure in the world of e-books. The Telegraph reports:

Michael Hart, who died on September 6 aged 64, was the father of Project Gutenberg, a seemingly quixotic scheme to copy the texts of tens of thousands of books into electronic form and distribute them for free; he thus gave birth to what has become known as the ebook revolution.

Project Gutenberg effectively began in 1971 when Hart, a student at the University of Illinois, was given an operator’s account with a virtually unlimited amount of computer time at the university’s Materials Research Laboratory.

At the time there was more computer time than people to use it; operators were expected to play around, to increase their proficiency. Computers of the era were cumbersome machines with whirring tape decks attended by acolytes dressed in white lab coats. The internet was two years old and was used only by academic and military researchers. Microsoft had not been born; email had yet to be invented; and the Web would not come along for two more decades.

But Hart decided that what he should do with his time was download historic texts — the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, the American Constitution and so on — and make them accessible in the public domain. As the United States bicentennial was coming up, he started by typing in the Declaration of Independence, which became Project Gutenberg’s first e-text.

For the next 20-odd years Hart typed away in obscurity, stockpiling books on tapes, floppy disks, CD-ROMs and hard drives. By 1987 he had typed a total of 313 books. Then, with the help of a computer programmer, he began to recruit an army of sympathetic volunteers around the world. As a result the project was able to grow much more rapidly.

He kept Project Gutenberg going on a shoestring, begging and borrowing equipment; using home remedies rather than paying to see the doctor; and building computers from discarded components. As he did not own a car for many years, he carried equipment around on a cart attached to his bicycle.

Many thought that Hart was mad, and he faced numerous setbacks. Changes to copyright laws forced him to abandon some nearly-completed projects. Academics were, for the most part, hostile, refusing to donate texts to Gutenberg because of its policy of unlimited distribution. In the early days, even those with access to the internet made little use of his archive, as downloading something like the Bible used up too much computer memory.

But as networking, computer memories and text scanning technology mushroomed, Hart’s idea began to be taken more seriously. In 1991 he set himself the goal of giving away a trillion books by 2001, distributed to the 100 million computers he believed would be up and running by then. “I want a world where you can walk into a public library and get 90 per cent of the information you need copied on a disk that you don’t have to return,” he proclaimed.

Hart’s freedom of information campaign provoked a fair amount of scepticism. At one symposium he was asked: “Are you a Communist, or are you just generous?” But Project Gutenberg has proved a boon for both lay readers and academic researchers, aiding, for example, the linguistic analysis of Hamlet and the comparison of texts to throw light on who an anonymous author might be.

As of June 2011, Project Gutenberg claimed more than 36,000 items in its collection, in 60 different languages, with an average of more than 50 new ebooks being added each week — stored in plain text to make them accessible to all. They include everything from the Bible to the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and from cookbooks and reference works to issues of periodicals.

There’s more at the link.

If you own or use an e-book reader such as Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook, or read books on your computer or tablet or PDA, you owe that to Michael Hart. He blazed the trail that many others have followed. In electronic and literary terms, he was as much a pioneer as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. He’ll be missed.

(Oh – and if you’ve never visited the Project Gutenberg Web site, you’re in for a treat. It has thousands of e-books available for download, absolutely free, including many of the world’s classic texts. IMHO, it’s an indispensable resource.)


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