Project Gutenberg Pioneer Michael Hart Dies at Age 64

By Oliver VanDervoort September 08, 2011

The man who could be called the grandfather of the modern eBook has died at the age of 64. Michael Hart began the process of digitizing paper books in 1971 as part of an endeavor that became known as Project Gutenberg. The first text to be digitized, the American Declaration of Independence wasn’t done in some fancy scanner. Rather Hart typed the Declaration out on his Xerox Sigma V mainframe in his lab at the University of Illinois. After the Declaration came the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Bible and then various works of Shakespeare. From there the project grew immensely. 

In the beginning the file sizes of books seemed to create a problem when talking about storing them on the personal computer. Since that time technology has made it manageable and what we now know as the modern eBook reading devices such as the Kindle were made possible. It is also largely thanks to Project Gutenberg that there are so many classic books available in eBook format.

Hart saw the digitizing books of making them more readily available to anyone who wanted them, noting in his 1992 History of the Gutenberg Project, “Once a book or any other item (including pictures, sounds, and even 3-D items can be stored in a computer), then any number of copies can and will be available. Everyone in the world, or even not in this world (given satellite transmission) can have a copy of a book that has been entered into a computer.”

Of course, retailers have a bit of a problem with that. While it is true that certain books might be more readily available, others are simply available in a different medium. Some authors have actually embraced Project Gutenberg’s aims, and will offer books completely free, while others are cashing in big time on the eBook craze. Of course, today’s eBooks are more than just the digital reproduction of print. More and more eBooks are having sound and pictures and animation along with the text in order to have more of a presentation than just a digital book. 

While eBooks will almost undoubtedly continue to evolve, Hart’s original contribution to the technology can’t be overlooked.

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Edited by Jennifer Russell

Contributing Writer

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