Goodbye to a Modern Pioneer: Michael S. Hart, Project Gutenberg

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” ~ George Bernard Shaw.

On September 6, the literary world lost a true pioneer. Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, died of a heart attack in his home in Urbana, Illinois. He was 64.

Hart was the inventor of the now nearly-ubiquitous electronic books, or eReaders, which he conceived in 1971. The idea for eReaders came to him after he received a free copy of the Declaration of Independence.  At the time, Hart was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and had access to their (then powerful) computers. He typed up the Declaration and sent it through the computer network to other users.

This free transmittal of literature became Hart’s life’s work for the next forty years via his “Project Gutenberg.” As of today, there are 100,000 works available to anyone who cares to download them, all free of charge.

Dr. Gregory Newby penned the obituary for his friend and colleague.  It reads, in part:

Michael 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.

Frugal to a fault, Michael glided through 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.

Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.

In July 2011, Michael wrote these words, which summarize his goals and his lasting legacy: “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.” He had this advice for those seeking to make literature available to all people, especially children: “Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that.”