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Michael S. Hart

E-Reader

Photo: Ben Claassen III, License: N/A

Ben Claassen III


On July 4, 1971, Michael S. Hart typed the Declaration of Independence onto the mainframe computer at the University of Illinois, where he had just been given an account after enrolling at the school where his father taught Shakespeare and his mother taught math. He followed soon after with entire books—the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—with the idea of using the network of computers to banish ignorance and illiteracy.

“In retrospect, Project Gutenberg was both prescient and revolutionary,” Richard Poynder wrote in a 2006 blog post featuring an interview with Hart. “In effect, Hart had become the first ‘information provider’ 20 years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, and at a time when there were, says Hart, just 100 people on the network. Indeed, what was to become the internet was then viewed as little more than a powerful mechanism for crunching data—not a publishing platform.”

After 17 years, Hart had only about 300 books typed in. Then he got a boost from the University of Illinois PC Users Group, and volunteers got to work. By 2006, Project Gutenberg had about 17,000 e-books uploaded. Now there are more than 36,000.

The Disney-driven Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 threatened the enterprise, leaving millions of works that would have become copyright-free protected for decades longer. Hart was recruited to be the lead plaintiff fighting that law, but when he told the lawyer—now a Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig—that he envisioned the suit as a way to “challenge the entire social and economic system of the United States” (in The New York Times’ words), they parted company.

“I am trying to change the world, and I make no attempt to hide that I am trying to change the world,” Hart wrote on his own blog, “though I must admit that every day it seems as if I am forced to learn more and more how very much the people of the world, at least those who have voices in such things, resist the simple effort I am making to provide books to the masses of the entire planet without regard to all those boundaries.”

And so now, If you want to grab a copy of, for instance, Nang Bata Pa Kami (in Tagalog), Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) is there for you. G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill is on the same page. Pretty much everything Mark Twain ever published is there too.

A look through Hart’s writings reveals a single-minded, true believer in first-wave internet nirvana. Remember that “information wants to be free” moment when the Mosaic browser ruled, “commercialism” was shunned, and everyone who mattered on the web was a Palo Alto-based hippie/nerd with long hair and ripped jeans? Those guys, who changed their minds, are all billionaires now. Hart died poor on Sept. 6 at age 64 at his home in Urbana, Ill.

“I know that sounds odd to most people, but I just never bought into the money system all that much,” he told Poynder. “I never spent it when I got it. It’s all a matter of perspective; most people spend the vast majority of their money on things I just don’t care about.”

People Who Died 2011
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