Michael Hart, inventor of the ebook and founder of Project Gutenberg, died Sept. 6 at age 64. His vision of freely accessible digital texts curated on the Internet, in the public domain, has had a defining influence on my life as a blind reader.
I am hardly alone in my debt of gratitude. I remember a story Norman Coombs told me years ago about his first contact with Project Gutenberg. He was so thrilled to read Shakespeare using his computer with voice synthesizer that he downloaded the Complete Works, just so he knew he would have it all in an accessible format whenever he wanted. Whether he read all of Shakespeare – or not – the accessibility was empowering. Norm’s book, The Black Experience in America, is accessible now via Project Gutenberg.
Hart understood this transformational drive for access to literacy when he wrote in July: “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.”
Amen, and thank-you, Michael Hart!
The Guardian recounts how Hart published his first digital text on the Internet:
In 1971, Hart was given extensive computer time by the operators of the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, he pondered carefully what to do with his time. “I happened to stop at our local IGA grocery store on the way. “We were just coming up on the American Bicentennial and they put faux parchment historical documents in with the groceries. So, as I fumbled through my backpack for something to eat, I found the US Declaration of Independence and had a lightbulb moment. I thought for a while to see if I could figure out anything I could do with the computer that would be more important than typing in the Declaration of Independence, something that would still be there 100 years later, but couldn’t come up with anything, and so Project Gutenberg was born,” he said in an interview in 2002.
Today, Project Gutenberg is one of the largest collections of free ebooks in the world.
“What allowed me to think of this particular use for computers so long before anyone else did is the same thing that allows every other inventor to create their inventions: being at the right place, at the right time, with the right background. As Lermontov said in The Red Shoes: ‘Not even the greatest magician in the world can pull a rabbit out of a hat if there isn’t already a rabbit in it’,” said Hart in 2002. “You have to remember that the internet had just gone transcontinental and this was one of the very first computers on it.
“Somehow I had envisioned the net in my mind very much as it would become 30 years later. I envisioned sending the Declaration of Independence to everyone on the net… all 100 of them… which would have crashed the whole thing, but luckily Fred Ranck stopped me, and we just posted a notice in what would later become comp.gen. I think about six out of the 100 users at the time downloaded it.”