Digitizing the Culture with Michael Hart

Michael Hart

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

- Michael Hart

Michael Hart 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 abated.

Hart invented e-books with his Project Gutenberg. The project has never imagined to be widely accessible as it is today. But his vision that everyone would be able to have their own copy of the Project Gutenberg collection or whatever subset desired, came true.

Project Gutenberg is regarded as the oldest digital library that most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books, and also seen to be the longest-lasting online literary projects.

Early Life

Michael Stern Hart was born on March 8th, 1947 in Tacoma, Washington. His father was an accountant and his mother was a business manager at a retail store. In 1958 his family moved to Urbana, Illinois, and his father and mother became college professors in Shakespearean studies and mathematics education, respectively.

Hart attended the University of Illinois and graduated in just two years. He then attended but did not complete graduate school. He was later became a street musician.

Project Gutenberg

While attending University of Illinois, Michael Hart was given a user's account on the university's computer system. Although the computers were focusing on data processing, Hart was aware that the computers were connected to a network and chose to use his computer time for information distribution.

After his account was created on July 4, 1971, Hart had been trying to think of what to do with it and had seized upon a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, which he had been given at a grocery store on his way home from watching fireworks that evening.

He typed the text into the computer but was told that it would be unacceptable to transmit it to numerous people at once via email. To avoid crashing the system, he made the text available for people to download instead.

This was the beginning of Project Gutenberg (PG). Hart began posting text copies of such classics as the Bible and the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain.

Founded in 1971, Project Gutenberg never imagined to be widely accessible with massive popularity. When the first uploaded United States Declaration of Independence e-book (electronic book) was uploaded, six members in the network downloaded it. This reinforced Hart’s belief that there was a demand for important historical documents being available over a computer.

The first documents uploaded to Project Gutenberg were foundational texts at first. But then Hart heard about a group of children eagerly reading "Alice in Wonderland" on the computer and realized the potential for digitized literature.

As of 1987, Hart had typed in a total of 313 books. Then, through being involved in the University of Illinois PC User Group and with assistance from Mark Zinzow, a programmer at the school, Hart was able to recruit volunteers and set up an infrastructure of mirror sites and mailing lists for the project. With this the project was able to grow much more rapidly.

Project Gutenberg is then became a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, encouraging the creation and distribution of e-books. It is regarded as the the oldest digital library that most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books, and also seen to be the longest-lasting online literary projects. The project tries to make these as free as possible, in long-lasting, open formats that can be used on almost any computer.

As of July 2012, Project Gutenberg claimed over 40,000 items in its collection.

The mission statements for the Project Gutenberg were:

  1. Encourage the creation and distribution of e-books.
  2. Help break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy.
  3. Give as many e-books to as many people as possible.

Personal Life And Death

After college, Michael Hart worked a variety of jobs to get money for his own living as well as Project Gutenberg. He supported himself by doing odd jobs and used an unpaid appointment at Illinois Benedictine College to solicit donations for the project.

Hart went through his 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.

He spent a lifetime digitizing literature lived amidst the hard copies in his house in Urbana stacked with pillars of books from floor to eye-height. Hart led a life of near poverty, and "basically lived off of cans of beans." Hart cobbled together a living with the money he earned as an adjunct professor and with grants and donations to Project Gutenberg.

He spoke out against U.S. copyright laws that kept books out of the public domain for many years and also publicly expressed disdain for practices in the publishing world that he saw as making money from books by deceased authors. His belief that classic books and important documents should be available to everyone for free was his philosophy for Project Gutenberg.

Hart was an intellectual, an ardent technologist and futurist that was inspired by his parents. He was lifetime tinkerer that acquired expertise with the technologies of the day: computers, radio, hi-fi stereo and video equipment. 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 cellphones.

Hart that usually writes in equal line length paragraphs in monospaced font, has left a major mark on the world with his e-book invention. A more correct understanding is that e-book is an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to e-books can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.

Michael Hart died on September 6th, 2011 of a heart attack at his home in Urbana, Illinois, at the age of 64. Hart 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 e-books in 60 different languages, and was frequently highlighted as one of the best internet-based resources.