Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, dead at 64

Added by on September 8, 2011

Michael S. Hart in 2006 / Wikimedia.org

Michael S. Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg – the first project that made electronic books (eBooks) available for free using the Internet – died on Wednesday, aged 64 at his home in Urbana, Illinois.

Hart is best known for the invention of electronic books, or eBooks, in 1971 which drove the creation of Project Gutenberg – among the earliest and oldest online literary projects.

Project Gutenberg – named after after Johannes Gutenberg, a fifteenth century German printer who introduced modern book printing – was inspired when Hart typed out a copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence he had received. Hart subsequently distributed the text to a number of computers which would eventually become part of the Internet. Hart continued posting plain text versions of classics that include the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and the Bible.

Hart had typed a total of 313 books by 1987, the year that he recruited volunteers and established the project’s infrastructure. Project Gutenberg had about 36,000 texts in its collection as of June 2011, with approximately 50 new eBooks added every week. The collection includes novels, poetry, short stories, cookbooks, reference books, and some issues of periodicals. Most items in the collection are distributed as public domain works and are clear of copyrights, making it one of the most widely-researched collections of literary works.

Project Gutenberg’s mission statements are: Encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks; Help break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy; Give as many eBooks to as many people as possible.

Hart’s obituary, posted on the Project Gutenberg web site, reads in part, “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.”

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