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: â€œOne 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.