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In Loving Memory of Michael S. Hart (1947-2011)

by johnguagliardo 8. September 2011 14:58


Obituary for Michael S. Hart (1947-2011)

In Loving Memory of a Dear Friend


The Inventor of eBooks, and Founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart, 
passed away this week.  Hart was instrumental in the creation of the 
World Public Library.  His mentorship was an inspiration to us all.  
We will miss him dearly.  

Please read our brief obituary. Funeral services are being arranged,
probably for Monday September 12 in Champaign, Illinois. Those
considering a donation are asked to use the regular Gutenberg
donation methods to donate a small amount

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.

Hart also predicted the enhancement of automatic translation, which
would provide all of the world's literature in over a hundred
languages. While this goal has not yet been reached, by the time of
his death Project Gutenberg hosted eBooks in 60 different languages,
and was frequently highlighted as one of the best Internet-based

A lifetime intellectual, Hart was inspired by his parents, both
professors at the University of Illinois, to seek truth and to
question authority. One of his favorite recent quotes, credited to
George Bernard Shaw, is characteristic of his approach to life:

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable
people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress,
therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

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

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." He had this
advice for those seeking to make literature available to all people,
especially children: "Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can
say is better than that."

Michael is remembered as a dear friend, who sacrificed personal luxury
to fight for literacy, and for preservation of public domain rights
and resources, towards the greater good.

This obituary is granted to the public domain by its author,
Dr. Gregory B. Newby.



WPL Blog Newsletters


8/16/2011 3:45:51 AM #

Mustapha Mugisa

Thanks very much for this great tribute to Michael. It is unfortunate that I have got to know about him after his death. I have read through some of his recent blog posts, and I found lots of insights and a technology maveric. And just like what he wrote over Steve Job's resignation, I probably would not be here writing this comment had Steve not come up with the invetion of an IPad! May Michael's soul rest in eternal peace.

Mustapha Mugisa

8/18/2011 12:19:15 PM #

Elaine Woo

Michael Stern Hart dies at 64

e-book pioneer Michael Stern Hart started Project Gutenberg to make books available via computer, long before the spread of the Internet.

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

September 9, 2011
Michael Stern Hart, a burly rebel whose vision of a literate society led him to pioneer the electronic book decades before the spread of the Internet, has died. He was 64.

The founder of the online library Project Gutenberg, Hart had been in poor health and was found Tuesday at his Urbana, Ill., home, said Project Gutenberg Chief Executive Gregory B. Newby. An autopsy is underway to determine the cause of death.

Hart was a freshman at the University of Illinois in 1971 when he was granted free access to the campus' enormous mainframe computer. He was uncertain how to use the valuable computer time until inspiration struck in the form of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence that had been stuffed in his grocery bag as part of a Fourth of July promotion.

He keyed the historic text into the computer system, which linked 100 users at elite institutions such as Harvard, UCLA and the Department of Defense. It was downloaded by six members of this pre-Internet network, which was encouragement enough for Hart to continue.

He transmitted the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Forty years later, Project Gutenberg, named after the inventor of the Gutenberg printing press, is one of the oldest online collections of literature, offering more than 33,000 free books in 60 languages. The vast majority are public domain, and all are digitized by volunteers scattered around the globe.

Hart was "an ardent technologist and futurist," said Newby, a University of Alaska computer scientist. Long before the invention of personal computers and electronic readers, "he predicted that information contained in books and other media would surround us and be freely available."

Others compared him to publishing pioneers such as Barney Rosset, who championed intellectual freedom through Grove Press, which published controversial authors such as D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. "What Barney Rosset, legendary founder of Grove Press, was to the printed book, Michael Hart was for the digital book: animated by an unremitting vision, idiosyncratic but immensely capable," independent publisher Richard E. Nash said by email Thursday.

A self-described "cyber-hippie," Hart was born in Tacoma, Wash., on March 8, 1947. His father was a Shakespeare scholar and his mother a mathematician.

Before going to college, he was a street musician in San Francisco and served a stint in the Army. He studied briefly at Dartmouth College before entering the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1971. An obstreperous student who enjoyed challenging his professors, he graduated in two years with the highest grades.

To support himself and Project Gutenberg, he held a variety of odd jobs, including installing and repairing hi-fi stereos. His enthusiasm for the future of electronic publishing won him a non-paying appointment at Illinois Benedictine College, which provided him standing to solicit donations for his literacy project.

He rarely collected a salary from Project Gutenberg, according to Newby, who described Hart in an online tribute as "frugal to a fault."

"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," Newby wrote.

He also was a skillful garage sale scavenger, whose house, according to a friend, was "a cross between a trash heap and a museum."

Briefly married, he is survived by his mother, Alice, and a brother, Bennett.

Project Gutenberg grew slowly during its first 18 years. By August 1989 it had completed its 10th e-book, the King James translation of the Bible. A few years later, he typed in Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," which brought an epiphany. He was talking to a friend on the telephone when her 11-year-old invited some friends over to read "Alice" on their computer. When they all tried to squeeze in front of the monitor on one chair, it broke into pieces and they crashed to the floor. But they wanted to keep reading.

When Hart heard about the incident, "the light went on in my head." He began concentrating on converting literary texts to e-books, convinced that the future of literature was electronic. From that day forward, "any time anyone owed me a favor," he recalled in a 1996 article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "it was, 'Here, type in some Hamlet.'"

The online collection grew exponentially over the next two decades, fulfilling an expansive range of reading tastes. The most-read book is "The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana" with more than 25,000 downloads, followed by "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," with more than 18,000 downloads. Project Gutenberg also releases collections on free CDs and DVDs.

In 1998, Wired magazine named Hart to its "Wired 25," a list of people around the world who were "actively, even hyperactively, inventing tomorrow."

Hart had his critics. He was often disparaged by academics, who complained of typographical and other errors in Project Gutenberg books. He was not beloved in the traditional publishing world, which he often attacked for profiting on the works of long-dead writers. He disapproved of U.S. copyright laws, which keep popular works out of the public domain for decades after an author has died.

Hart dismissed his critics' attacks.

"I'm not doing this to make the academic community happy," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. He aimed to serve the masses. "I am a revolutionary in this neo-industrial revolution. That's why they have trouble with me. How can anyone be troubled by free information?"

Elaine Woo United States

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