A man with a heart
Michael Stern Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington, on March 8th 1947.
Tomorrow is his 65th birth anniversary.
On July 4, 1971, he had typed the text of the U.S. Declaration of
Independence into his computer and transmitted it to about 100 other
users on the University of Illinois computer network.
That was his first step towards developing the on-line library
‘Project Gutenberg’ which today has over 38,000 books in 61 languages
available for free reading, on any desktop or laptop computer, on iPad,
Kindle, ePub and even on a mobile phone. They are all books on the
public domain, or copyrighted works for which he got permission to
reproduce. Today the project also provides audio books and music.
Fathering a trend
Some called him the father of the E-book, and Hart is known more as
the founder of Project Gutenberg, He had used the name Gutenberg after
the man who created the first practical printing press. In a way the
name is ironic, because till Gutenberg showed the way for commercial
scale publishing of books. All written material, from the first clay
tablets, ola leaves and parchment were distributed free, even though the
books were available only for the few fortunate priests and the elite.
It is the printing press which made the book a commodity, to be sold
at a price, a Fast Moving Consumer Product, for businessmen to market
and make a profit. After the arrival of the printing press, it was in
1971 that Hart gives readers the opportunity to access books free of
In 1971 he personally typed in the first eBooks, the Bible, works of
Homer, Shakespeare and Mark Twain. During the 16 years up to 1987 he had
keyed in 313 books, and with the help of many volunteers through the
University of Illinois PC User Group, by 1998 he had 1,600 eBooks
online. Still he was just dismissed by many people as “that crazy guy
who wants to put Shakespeare in a computer”. But the ‘Crazy guy’ soon
had 17,000 eBooks on Project Gutenberg.
However, in 1998, people who wanted to keep knowledge and books away
from the general public managed to take over one million books out of
the public domain, with the Copyright Extension Act, extending copyright
up to 95 years.
Richard Poynder who interviewed Hart on March 9th, 2006, had this to
say after he finished the interview, “What it reveals is a man whose
whole life has clearly been dedicated to defending the public domain,
but who is sometimes a little hard to fathom”.
A little hard to fathom, probably because he was ahead of his time.
His mission statement was “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”. His mission is to receive a
lot of help with the coming of e-book readers, and the facility offered
in android phones to read eBooks. According the International Data
Corporation there were 12.8 million eBook readers by 2010. One more
facility available is ‘Calibre’, (calibre-ebook.com), which can convert
many eBook formats to many other eBook formats, manage our eLibrary, and
Syncing support for eBook readers.
On July 16, 2011, at 04.38 hrs, Michael S. Hart had written to
Brewster Kahle, about “A Graceful Exit”, that he had accomplished all
his goals, his career chosen in eBooks has been a success in terms of
what he has been trying to accomplish for the last four decades. Then he
goes on to say that he has set one more impossible goal, as he is faced
with limited time, limited resources and declining energy levels. His
goals were “1. A Billion eBook Library, 2. Spending more time in Hawai,
3. Working to create a graceful exit”.
The Billion eBook library was based on the premise there are 25
million books in the public domain, converting 40% would give 10 million
eBooks. There are 250 languages with over one million speakers, 40% will
be 100 languages. 10 million eBooks translated into 100 languages yields
ONE BILLION eBOOKS!
In this message Hart also lamented that he did not personally believe
the world at large really, sincerely wants to provide literacy and a
education to anyone in the Third World, in spite of all the lip service
to the contrary.
Michael S. Hart died on September 6, 2011. Two months before his
death, in July 2011, he had written, “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”.
“...Hart's house in Urbana was stacked, floor to eye-height, with
pillars of books. The man who spent a lifetime digitizing literature
lived amidst the hard copies, which he often sent home with visitors. It
was one more way for him to share his books”, wrote Emily Langer, in the
Ignorance and illiteracy
In the document prepared by his family after his death, there was an
image of Michael S. Hart “breaking down the bars of ignorance and
Our tribute to Michael S. Hart should be our own contribution to
break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy.
We can contribute in many ways, by volunteering to add more books to
the Gutenberg Project, by sharing our books with everyone, by
encouraging more writers to add their works to the public domain, to
reach Hart's one million eBook target.
I feel proud that Michael and I were born on the same year, same day,
but when I think of what he had achieved and his contribution to mankind
in his short life of 55 years, I also feel ashamed of myself and guilty,
about my failure to contribute anything worthwhile .