Last week brought the sad news that Michael Hart, eBook pioneer and Project Gutenberg founder, has passed away at the age of 64.
Hart took inspiration from Johannes Gutenberg, who developed the first printing press in the mid-15th century, a development that took the first step towards affordable mass-production of text and provided the foundations of the explosion of discoveries that became known as the Renaissance. Hart believed that using technology that could produce infinite copies of text for free could have a similar impact on the 20th century. In 1998 he predicted that, ”Twenty or thirty years from now, there’s going to be some gizmo that kids carry around in their back pocket that has everything in it – including our books, if they want.”
In 1971 Hart entered the text of the US Declaration of Independence into a mainframe computer at the University of Illinois – the first ever digital text. Through massive volunteer work and the development of scanning technology, the website published its 40,000th public domain book in March of this year, a collection that includes Arthur Conan Doyle’s complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Joyce’s Ulysses as regular fixtures in its top ten books. The most-accessed title by a country mile is Vatsyayana’s The Kama Sutra, with 1126 downloads yesterday alone.
Disappointingly predictable internet behaviours aside, Hart’s life work goes far beyond the development of eBooks as a tech innovation. As he said 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.”
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