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Michael S Hart - the Brain Behind eBook

Carvings on cave walls, clay tablets, wood blocks, palm leafs, silk, scrolls, papyrus and paper - the written word has traversed through a myriad of platforms over the course of civilization. The world witnessed a radical uplift with the introduction of books and a similar breakthrough with the creation of the revolutionary eBook (or electronic book). Massive volumes of literature and art took on virtual avatars and were made available on our palm tops, thanks to the pioneering efforts of one man, Michael S Hart.

Michael S Hart was the man whose revolutionary invention redefined the experience of reading. Hart was at the University of Illinois, when he received a user account in their computer system. He realized a deep potential in inter connected computers; although at that point of time the computer systems at the university were mainly used for data processing. After his account was created on July 4, 1971, Hart kept wondering what to do with it. He found an answer when he seized upon a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, which he received at a grocery store on his way home from watching fireworks that evening.

He typed the entire copy of the declaration into the computer, but he wasn’t allowed to distribute to numerous users via internet. Thus, to avoid crashing the system, he made the text available for people to download instead. That was how Hart founded the Project Gutenberg in 1971. The project was a voluntary effort by Hart to digitize and archive cultural works and to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks. He began posting digital copies of classics such as works of Homer, Shakespeare, Mark Twain and even Bible. Hart typed most of early postings himself and completed typing a total 313 ebooks by 1987. The mission statements for the project were: 

  • "Encourage the Creation and Distribution of eBooks" 
  • "Help Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy" 
  • "Give As Many eBooks to As Many People As Possible"

Michael Hart
Hart engaged in odd jobs and did an unpaid appointment at the Illinois Benediectine College to solicit donations for the project. Soon, he collaborated with programmer Mark Zinziw to set up an infrastructure of mirror sites and mailing lists, and recruited volunteers who were willing to take the project ahead. This led to an ascending curve in the success of Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg is considered the oldest digital library and as of 2011 has claimed over 36000 items as a part of its extensive collection.

Apart from Project Gutenber, Hart was also a member of the RepRap Project that aims at creating a self-replicating machine. An author himself, Hart’s passion for books pedaled the experience of reading books to a new level, making big volumes available in portable formats. His works are available free of charge on the Project Gutenberg server. 

Michael S Hart passed away on September 6, 2011 of a heart attack at his home in Urbana, Illinois. He was 64.

-by Parmita Borah

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