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Michael S. Hart, at 64; created Project Gutenberg library

By William Grimes
New York Times / September 10, 2011

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NEW YORK - Michael Stern Hart, who was widely credited with creating the first e-book when he typed the Declaration of Independence into a computer on July 4, 1971, and in so doing laid the foundations for Project Gutenberg, the oldest and largest digital library, was found dead Tuesday at his home in Urbana, Ill. He was 64.

His death was confirmed by Gregory B. Newby, the chief executive and director of Project Gutenberg, who said that the cause had not been determined.

Mr. Hart found his life’s mission when the University of Illinois, where he was a student, gave him a user’s account on a Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer at the school’s Materials Research Lab.

Estimating that the computer time in his possession was worth $100 million, Mr. Hart began thinking of a project that might justify that figure. Data processing, the principal application of computers at the time, did not capture his imagination. Information sharing did.

After attending a Fourth of July fireworks display, he stopped at a grocery store and with his purchase received a copy of the Declaration of Independence printed on parchment. He typed the text, intending to send it as an e-mail to the users of Arpanet, the government-sponsored precursor to today’s Internet, but was dissuaded by a colleague who warned that the message would crash the system. Instead, he posted a notice that the text could be downloaded, and Project Gutenberg was born.

Its goal, formulated by Mr. Hart, was “to encourage the creation and distribution of e-books’’ and, by making books available to computer users at no cost, “to help break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy.’’

Over the next decade, working alone, Mr. Hart typed the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the King James Bible, and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’’ into the project database, the first tentative steps in a revolution that would usher in what he liked to call the fifth information age, a world of e-books, hand-held electronic devices like the Nook and Kindle, and unprecedented individual access to texts on a vast array of Internet archives.

Today, Project Gutenberg lists more than 30,000 books in 60 languages, with the emphasis on titles of interest to the general reader in three categories: “light literature,’’ “heavy literature,’’ and reference works. In a 2006 e-mail to the technology writer Glyn Moody, he predicted that there would be 1 billion e-books in 2021, Project Gutenberg’s 50th anniversary, and that, thanks to advances in memory chips, “you will be able to carry all billion e-books in one hand.’’

Nearly all the books are in the public domain, although a relatively small number of copyrighted books are reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner.

Mr. Hart was born in Tacoma. His father was an accountant; his mother, a cryptanalyst during World War II, was the business manager for a high-end women’s store. The couple retrained to become university teachers and in 1958 found posts at the University of Illinois, in Urbana, where his father taught Shakespeare and his mother taught mathematics.

Michael began attending lectures at the university before entering high school and, following a course of individual study on human-machine interfaces, earned a bachelor of science degree in 1973.

Work on Project Gutenberg proceeded slowly at first. Adding perhaps a book a month, Mr. Hart had created only 313 e-books by 1997. “I was just waiting for the world to realize I’d knocked it over,’’ he told Searcher. “You’ve heard of ‘cow-tipping’? The cow had been tipped over, but it took it 17 years for it to wake up and say, ‘Moo.’ ’’

The pace picked up when he and Mark Zinzow, a programmer at the University of Illinois, recruited volunteers through the school’s PC User Group and set up mirror sites to provide multiple sources for the project.

Shrewdly, Mr. Hart included books such as “Zen and the Art of the Internet’’ and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Internet’’ to expand the audience for the project’s books.

Today, relying on the work of volunteers who scan and proofread without pay, the project adds to its list at the rate of hundreds of books each month.

Even in the project’s early stages, Mr. Hart envisioned it in revolutionary terms. Borrowing a term from “Star Wars,’’ he referred to e-books as just one form of replicator technology that would, in the future, allow for the infinite reproduction of things as well as words, overturning all established power structures and ushering in an age of universal abundance.