Michael Hart 1947-2011

by Michael Cook on September 8, 2011
PG News

Michael Hart

Two days ago, on the 6th September 2011, Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, was found dead in his home in Urbana, Illinois, aged just 64.

Michael invented the eBook (electronic book) in 1971 when he typed the U.S. Declaration of Independence into the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois in celebration of the American Bicentennial. Just six out of the then 100 users on the network downloaded the file, but it was from these humble beginnings that Michael founded Project Gutenberg, which is now recognized as one of the earliest and longest-lasting online literary projects.

Dr. Gregory B. Newby, CEO of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, has written the following obituary;

Obituary for Michael Stern Hart

Michael Stern Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington on March 8, 1947. He died on September 6, 2011 in his home in Urbana, Illinois, at the age of 64. His is survived by his mother, Alice, and brother, Bennett. Michael was an Eagle Scout (Urbana Troop 6 and Explorer Post 12), and served in the Army in Korea during the Vietnam era.

Hart was best known for his 1971 invention of electronic books, or eBooks. He founded Project Gutenberg, which is recognized as one of the earliest and longest-lasting online literary projects. He often told this story of how he had the idea for eBooks. He had been granted access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On July 4 1971, after being inspired by a free printed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he decided to type the text into a computer, and to transmit it to other users on the computer network. From this beginning, the digitization and distribution of literature was to be Hart’s life’s work, spanning over 40 years.

Hart was an ardent technologist and futurist. A lifetime tinkerer, he acquired hands-on expertise with the technologies of the day: radio, hi-fi stereo, video equipment, and of course computers. He constantly looked into the future, to anticipate technological advances. One of his favorite speculations was that someday, everyone would be able to have their own copy of the Project Gutenberg collection or whatever subset desired. This vision came true, thanks to the advent of large inexpensive computer disk drives, and to the ubiquity of portable mobile devices, such as cell phones.

Hart also predicted the enhancement of automatic translation, which would provide all of the world’s literature in over a hundred languages. While this goal has not yet been reached, by the time of his death Project Gutenberg hosted eBooks in 60 different languages, and was frequently highlighted as one of the best Internet-based resources.

A lifetime intellectual, Hart was inspired by his parents, both professors at the University of Illinois, to seek truth and to question authority. One of his favorite recent quotes, credited to George Bernard Shaw, is characteristic of his approach to life:

 "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world.  Unreasonable
 people attempt to adapt the world to themselves.  All progress,
 therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

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."

Michael is remembered as a dear friend, who sacrificed personal luxury to fight for literacy, and for preservation of public domain rights and resources, towards the greater good.

This obituary is granted to the public domain by its author, Dr. Gregory B. Newby.

Photo’s of Michael Hart

Here’s one from benchilada’s Flickr Account;

The Outlaw Michael Hart

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J.Kahn Koontz September 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm

There has never been a time when this man was not a force of nature. As the years pass, I see a number of notices for deceased people of interest, and I always want to know more about who they were, how they saw the world, and what made them so interesting. This time, I know the story all too well and want to let all of you know who Michael Hart is.

There are a number of people that Michael knew longer than I, and a number of people that were closer but I was probably one of the few constants that stayed in town, saw him regularly, and would talk about anything under the sun to see what true life story-time adventure was just a few sentences away.

Michael lived. There is no other way to phrase it. When we first met he was in his mid 40s, and had no shortage of stories to share about his ‘youth’. Whether it was his special permission to have shoulder length hair while serving in the military, or his adventures as a street singer in San Francisco, there was not a dull moment in a conversation for anyone he met.

Hopefully you will soon see a resurgence of articles commenting on Michael’s commitment to e-books and Project Gutenberg. His commitment to the idea that information should be shared, literature should fall out of copyright so new authors could thrive, and the future value of the work he felt purposed to do for the past 38 years never wavered. Michael understood crowd sourcing before disco came into fashion. He understood how to motivate volunteers and run a global organization before Wal-Mart had even left the continental US. Make no mistake this man was a genius.

Over the years I’ve helped with many Gutenberg tasks such as proofing CD contents, running web sites, and transporting and ‘herding’ reporters both foreign and domestic on his behalf. I’ve been there during the interviews, heard every word, and wondered how the printed article came out so different. It always amazed me that Michael didn’t really care what they printed about him (yes Wired, you too) as long as he could spread the spotlight to the thousands of Gutenberg volunteers or the millions of future children that would benefit from the work.

Michael loved my children. It’s hard for me to think of that without crying, but imagine if you will the bear of a man that Michael was sitting on my front lawn having a tea party with my then 6 and 8 year old girls. In the years since that day, he referred to it many times as one of the happiest moments he’s ever had. For a man with millions of stories and countless adventures, this small statement defines this man to me. Someone who lived for the simple pleasures and truly loved everything he did.

Michael, you will be mourned by many, but forgotten by none. There may never be a monument but there will always be the e-books and more importantly there will always be the ideas and movement you started. I’m honored to have known you and shared an adventure or two.

Your friend,
-Kahn

Patrick A. Partridge September 9, 2011 at 3:30 am

I’ve been so unbelievably ignorant of this remarkable man and though I’ve enjoyed reading books through the magnificent Gutenberg Project and enjoyed the wizardry and/or genius that brought e-books and moreso the Gutenberg Project to the world and thus truly made learning, mind expanding thought and innovative ideas to the world a truly magnificent gift to all peoples, past, present and future of this world by making the access to everyone, the brilliance, the imaginative thought, the awareness of so many whose gift of ideas, of technical expertise and insights and for me, the wondrous world of literature. What a truly great man, both in mind and heart. Thank you Michael Hart and may God bless you and keep you for being so kind to all people past, present and future.

Michael Wooff September 23, 2011 at 4:47 am

He helped me to get four things published on PG – one in German, one in French and my own translations into English of each. R.I.P.

Suzi Banks Baum September 28, 2011 at 12:22 pm

I could not be sadder, more struck by the recent passing of Michael Hart. What a passionate, inspired man. I just stumbled in here, on an author’s search for information about Caroline Bailey. She was the author of many books for children, namely “Miss Hickory”, which is how I got here to PGN. I send my condolences to all who loved Michael. I know a similar wizard in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, practically the same age as Michael was when he died. Along with my condolences I include my interest in this project and hope to participate in some way in the future. All my best, Suzi

Donna Parsons September 30, 2011 at 9:19 am

I’m not sure how I’ve missed this place to send comments until today. I, too, have been to this site for books but never until now realized how or who all this got started. I had just come back looking for some specific books by H. Irving Hancock, also a children’s book author – specifically the Young Engineers books and their predecessors and companions. I was just so saddened to learn that just as I did so this wonderful man who started all this had unexpectedly passed away; I am so sorry. I did not want to do anything further until I had made a donation to this project in his memory which my husband and I have done so now. I’ve wanted to be a proofreader for a while and I’m hoping to start; there’s a book on the list I’m eager to work on. May this all continue, Donna

Daniel December 1, 2011 at 7:25 am

RIP Michael Hart.
You will always be remembered!

Maria Diehn December 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Being aware, as proofreader of Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders, of the huge contributions of Michael Hart to the humankind, I regret the loss of this generous and extraordinary human being.

He lived a short life, but his creation will last for centuries.

My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Leif July 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Our world is tremendously better thanks to the generosity and genius of Michael Hart. I feel so fortunate to have meet Michael during the summer of 2010 at my garage sale in Urbana, IL. Michael was rummaging through some old computer parts, PDAs, and calculators that I had for sale when we struck up a conversation. I was intrigued by his knowledge of electronics and computers. Part way through our conversation he introduced himself and I was so excited to be exchanging thoughts on education, music, and eBooks with the founder of Project Gutenberg. The hour or so we spent talking was truly inspiring. Ultimately Michael bought an assortment of electronics from my garage sale. He told me that he was planning to refurbish and then donate the equipment to local school children. But best of all he seeded an idea for me to pursue based on the conversation we had that hot afternoon.

Thank you Michael. You are an inspiration!