‘At the time when the World Wide Web was twenty years away from realization, Michael Stern Hart’s creation of the first eBook was not only pioneering, but also a visionary achievement in what would later be called the age of digital publishing. His eventual founding of Project Gutenberg initiated an enduring crusade for the free distribution of knowledge.’
When Michael S. Hart thought of typing out-of-copyright books as a way to give something back for his free computer hours in the mainframe of the University of Illinois, only less than ten people in the world back then had a shadowy vision of what the ARPANet would become in the next thirty years. No one even had an inkling on how fast the proliferation of what would become today’s Internet would be, nor did people have an expectation of the depth of the world wide web’s importance in all levels of intellect and all walks of life.
It was radical in 1971 to visualize a future where books on the public domain were freely disseminated for the reach of those aspiring to learn but were hindered by the commercialization of learning. It was a task which seemed to belong to an age other than Hart's, considering that the computer at that time was far from being a household tool, and yet by the time Hart died on September 6, 2011, his digital book project had become not only the oldest, widest-used and largest single-collection public library in the world, but also one of the greatest achievements of the latter half of the twentieth century along with the internet. The project inspired the creation of a broad range of data collection and digital libraries made available to communities and educational institutions. From a network database housing the first electronic copy of the United States' Declaration of Independence Project Gutenberg's catalogue is now distributed in easily-hyperlinked pages and CD and DVD collections.
Hart is a real visionary in a sense that during the years when, in his own words, "there was more computer time than people knew what to do with," he found a way where the technological marvel feared by science fictionists to have handled the key to the gates of hell became a key to "help break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy." He began this vision when the Internet was just fledgling under the fingertips of university research, first throwing the task entirely on his back before soliciting the help of a few friends and colleagues who partook the job of encoding millions of verbatim copies of different literature, hundreds of which were done by Hart himself, such as the typing in of the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Mark Twain and the Bible. When he died, the project had already posted 38,000 eBooks in 60 languages. From a hundred people it is now made accessible by billions.
Several obituaries praised Hart on this single and yet very momentous achievement. But despite them all, the progress of Project Gutenberg was never a sleek one. It would take seventeen long years of bearing the tedium alone before Hart was able to enlist the help of young volunteers who could expand the measly 313 volumes that he had put up at that time. It would take another decade before the number of downloadable e-books grew to 1,700, and soon PG succeeded to reach a wide renown as a sanctuary of the freedom to learn.
The Project started with the concept of Replicator Technology, a term created by Hart to refer to the creation of copies of items that could be stored in a computer, thus making a wide range of books available as soft copies of electronic texts in ASCII or what is known as the .txt, the simplest of all text formats recognized by 99% of all hardware and software including, apart from DOS, those that were marginalized at the time (Atari, Amiga, IBM, TRS-80, Z80 computers, Mac, UNIX, etc.). At first the team encoded only those books that were generally used, meaning that esoteric materials were for the time being set aside. They had to work on shorter ones since during those days computer memory was very limited, and it took some time before they could work on longer books such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan when 360 kb was the standard memory of computer drives, and some other while before they could incorporate low resolution graphics into the texts. The project categorized its postings into Light Literature (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Aesop's Fables, etc.), Heavy Literature (Shakespeare, Moby Dick, Paradise Lost and others, including religious texts) and References (Roget's Thesaurus, almanacs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.). Today these texts are available for downloading in HTML, EPUB, Kindle, Plucker, and QiQoo formats. In the advent of phone browsers Project Gutenberg has also made itself available through the mobile web.
In 1998 the Copyright Term Extension Act of the United States lengthened the copyright duration of printed books to 20 years. Here Michael Hart’s brainchild faced its greatest challenge. It now became impossible to upload the texts of over a million books, and for a while Hart became a representative of the movement for free distribution before being replaced with Eric Eldred, owner of the Eldritch Press who reprints works in the public domain. The case was lost, and yet the project keeps on, determining to post 10 million eBooks in 100 languages by the year 2020.
In 2000 Hart formed the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation or PGLAF to further seek support for the project and to advance Hart's foray into "a neo-industrial revolution." In 2004 he declared PG's intention to add multimedia eBooks such as paintings, sculptures, music, audio eBooks, movies, etc. along with a wider variety of text formats.
Hart’s frugality, his simplicity and self-described unreasonableness is understandable in the light of his unflinching commitment to his chosen cause. Although he enjoyed life he did not indulge in the rewards of prestige, and on the moment he died he was close to poverty, living only on donations and small earnings as an adjunct professor, and his possessions in his Illinois home included no greater luxury than a few tall stacks of books which the project had been scanning for many years. Hart was not amenable to making money out of the eventual celebrity brought by his digital brainchild.
His humility caused him to be shunned by the limelight more deserved by rockstars than by humanitarian workers, and adds to the cause by which we admire him. His inventiveness and knack for improvisation is a sample of his innovative genius that spawned a great many things now seen sprawling across the World Wide Web, from databases to online encyclopedias and file sharing systems, many of which never knew the person who defined digital publishing as a tool for the proliferation of learning.
In an article about the digital hero independent journalist Richard Poynder observes: “In effect, Hart had become the first information provider twenty years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web.” In addition, Computer World UK’s Glyn Moody notes that Hart began PG “fully 12 years before Richard Stallman began to formulate his equivalent ideas for free software.”
Just as his eBooks, may the likes of Michael Stern Hart (1947-2011) be replicated for the promotion of all the available knowledge of the world.