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08 September 2011, 11:53

Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, has died

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Michael S. Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, that publishes electronic versions of literary works and makes them freely available worldwide, has passed away. The obituary published on the Gutenberg site states that he died at the age of 64, on 6 September, at his home in Urbana, Illinois, US. It relates Hart's own story of the founding of Project Gutenberg: in 1971 he had access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois; after receiving a free copy of the US Declaration of Independence, he typed the text into a computer and sent it to other users on the network. In this way was born the concept of free ebooks, and eventually, Project Gutenberg.

Elsewhere on the Gutenberg site, Hart is quoted as saying of his thought to digitise and distribute the Constitution: "the light literally went on over my head like in the cartoons and comics... I knew what the future of computing, and the internet, was going to be...'The Information Age.' The rest, as they say, is history."

The project was named after the 16th century Johann Gutenberg, who invented the modern printing system with his edition of the Bible. Just as Gutenberg enabled anybody to own printed books for a small cost, Project Gutenberg intended to allow anybody to own a digital library at no cost: "to put at everyone's disposal, in electronic versions, as many literary works as possible for free." According to the Project, it currently has made available 36,000 books in 60 languages.

As Hart was the son of two university professors (in English literature and mathematics), he grew up in Urbana, Illinois in an academic environment filled with books. He was also interested in electronics, and tinkered with radios and speakers. These interests continued into more recent times, a self replicating machine being one of his later projects. Until the end of his life he was an optimistic futurist, who firmly believed that one day everybody would have their own copy of the Project Gutenberg.


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