Celebrating Michael Hart

This morning’s Observer column.

Michael Hart is dead. Michael who? I guess most people have never heard of him and yet if you’ve ever read an ebook then your life has been touched by him. Why? Because way back in 1971 he had a great idea: that computers could make great literature freely available to anyone. He founded Project Gutenberg, the world’s greatest archive of free, public-domain ebooks, and he devoted his life and most of his energies to that one great project.

The idea came to him when he was a student at the University of Illinois in 1971. Computers were then huge, fabulously expensive mainframes and Michael had access to one of them. On Independence Day 1971, inspired by receiving a free printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, he typed the text of the declaration into a computer file and sent it to other users of the machine. He followed it up by typing the text of the Bill of Rights, and then, in 1973, the full text of the US constitution.

Most people would have stopped at this point, but not Hart. If computers could store and endlessly distribute great texts, he reasoned, why stop at the constitution? Why not create the digital equivalent of the lost Library of Alexandria? Why not every book in the world – or at least every significant text that was out of copyright and in the public domain? Thus was Project Gutenberg born…