Project Gutenberg Founder Michael Stern Hart, 1947-2011

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In 1971, Michael Hart was given some operator time on a Xerox mainframe, and felt obligated to produce something worthwhile. Struck by an idea, he typed in, letter by letter, the text of the Declaration of Independence, from a copy he had been given on the fourth of July. He then attempted to send it to everyone connected to the mainframe, and narrowly escaped bringing the network (such as it was) down around their heads. An inauspicious start for Project Gutenberg, one of the most forward-thinking projects in the history of technology.

The basic principles of the web as we know it are embodied in Project Gutenberg. The idea of digitizing and making freely available the world’s information found its first real traction there. YouTube, iTunes, and Google Books of course are merely scaled-up versions of that first impetus, to take the written page and translate it to ones and zeros.

And in an age of copyright conflicts, patent disputes, and trademark bullying, the project is a sobering reminder that posterity cares very little for our vain squabbling.

Decisions made by Hart and his group of volunteers in fact not only predicted future markets and technologies, but looked beyond that pesky period when they’ll be used for profit and commercial purposes. Finding ways to monetize the works of others is a job for Amazon, Adobe, and Apple. Gutenberg was always about making as much literature as accessible as possible. That’s why the books are in plain ASCII (branching out more recently to a few other accessible formats), supported by everything from Amigas to iPads. It’s the internet in its purest form: the unfettered dissemination of information in the simplest and most open way possible.

The Project Gutenberg approach was the first, and it’s still the best. While companies and industries may cling like remora to the ark of progress, leeching what profits they can during periods of exclusivity and marketability, the direction we are moving is unchanged. Hart was a true visionary, and his eyes were on a more distant horizon than many who have come since.

Hart died in his Illinois home earlier this week. His industry, charity, and modesty will be sorely missed. An obituary has been posted here. Hart’s own history of the project can be found here.