E-book pioneer Michael Hart dies

The founder of Project Gutenberg, an ambitious and now large project to digitize out-of-copyright texts, has died at age 64.

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Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart
Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart Project Gutenberg

Michael Hart, who laid the foundation for today's e-book industry by launching Project Gutenberg 40 years ago, died Tuesday at age 64, the project announced.

Hart began the digitization project on July 4, 1971, by typing the text of the U.S. Declaration of Independence into a Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois. Next came the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

It grew from there. As of March, the project released its 40,000th digitized book and combined another 60,000 from other sources, Hart said in an e-mail message then. He gave the message a strong, but not entirely hyperbolic title: "It's The Year of the eBook!"

In the project's early years, it was a feat to have enough storage space for books, but gradually technology caught up with Hart's vision.

"The premise on which Michael Hart based Project Gutenberg was: anything that can be entered into a computer can be reproduced indefinitely," Hart said in his 1992 history of Project Gutenberg. "Once a book or any other item (including pictures, sounds, and even 3-D items can be stored in a computer), then any number of copies can and will be available. Everyone in the world, or even not in this world (given satellite transmission) can have a copy of a book that has been entered into a computer."

In 1992, Hart delighted that a 1.44MB floppy disk could hold an average book's text and predicted that eventually its graphics would arrive.

Today, e-books can come with graphics, of course--indeed comics are a big genre on tablets. And at the avant garde of e-books today, "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" adds sound, animation, and interactivity.

View of "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"
"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," an e-book for iPads, shows how e-books now include the ability to play music and watch animations. Apple App Store

More obviously, though, e-books are a big business as e-books branched out from public-domain classics to hot newer titles such as J.K. Rowling's Pottermore e-book series about Harry Potter. Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook are the best-known devices dedicated to reading e-books, but apps for the software bring the e-books to smartphones, tablets, and PCs. Project Gutenberg and its allies have supplied a huge base of out-of-copyright popular works that are available for free alongside the newer books that are only available to those who pay.

Project Gutenberg logo

E-books have opened up gray areas in between public domain and traditional book sales. Some authors, such as Ralph Lalonde, choose to offer a first e-book free then sell the sequels. Others, such as Cory Doctorow, offer many works for free online, but count on sales of paper versions or secondary revenue sources. And "fan fiction" has blossomed as people write their own books within an established author's fictional universe.

It took the work of many to bring today's e-books into being. But Hart helped plant a crucial seed.

Hart is survived by his mother, Alice, and brother, Bennett.