Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart.

Michael Hart, the inventor of the e-book and the founder of Project Gutenberg, passed away this week at his home in Urbana, Illinois. He was 64. Project Gutenberg has published an obituary, as have most major newspapers. That’s not surprising: his impact on the Internet and his vision of a future of open accessible content are profoundly important.

The impetus for Project Gutenberg came from time Hart spent operating the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois back in the early Seventies. Access to such computing power was a huge opportunity, something that Hart wanted to make the most of:

“I happened to stop at our local IGA grocery store on the way. We were just coming up on the American Bicentennial and they put faux parchment historical documents in with the groceries. So, as I fumbled through my backpack for something to eat, I found the US Declaration of Independence and had a lightbulb moment. I thought for a while to see if I could figure out anything I could do with the computer that would be more important than typing in the Declaration of Independence, something that would still be there 100 years later, but couldn’t come up with anything, and so Project Gutenberg was born.”

It was a prescient move, and as he once told BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder, he suspected that “twenty or 30 years from now, there’s going to be some gizmo that kids carry around in their back pocket that has everything in it — including our books, if they want.” Forty years after he digitized that copy of the Declaration of Independence, Project Gutenberg now houses some 36,000 titles — books taken from the public domain, digitized, and made freely and openly available. And, as the futurist Hart predicted, we have devices with which we can download, store, carry in our pockets, and yes, read the entire Project Gutenberg catalog.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the significance of this. To be sure, the books that you’ll find in Project Gutenberg — books like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, and The Tale of Two Cities (I could go on) — are available in libraries. You can buy them from a bookstore, in both print and digital versions. But as they’re in the public domain, no publisher or author holds the rights to the material. And unlike many of the e-books you buy, Project Gutenberg offers its digital texts in a variety of file formats. In other words, you’re not stuck with a title that you can only read on your Kindle. You can read the books on your computer, on your Kindle, on your iPad, on your cellphone. You can, if you choose, print them out and read them on paper.

In digitizing books from the public domain, Project Gutenberg has become a great resource for literature and for literacy, and it is a cornerstone for other open educational resources on the Web.

When we talk about the ways in which the Internet can impact learning, we often tout the worldwide scale with which knowledge can be shared. Hart was always a defender of the public domain as a part of this, and he was an inventor of one of the most important tools to help enable the access and availability of literature. As he wrote earlier this year, “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.”

  • A.T. Murray

    The news of Michael Hart’s passing has saddened me immensely. Project Gutenberg has fascinated me for years. I hope that Project Gutenberg will be able to survive and flourish even after this sad event.

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  • Extremely prescient of Hart to start so early–and even to envision tablets and smartphones. SS

  • Lynn Wolf

    Michael Hart will be remembered as one of the most significant visionaries of our time. What a brilliant visionary he was!

  • paynedc

    There seems to be a typo, Audrey.  You’ve written The Tale of Two Cities when you meant to type A Tale of Two Cities.  Appreciated this story as I had no idea about Mr. Hart’s contributions – thank you for it.

  • Mark Vakkur

    Excellent article.  I love Project Gutenberg and the ideal it represents – free, immediate, open access on demand to all works of literature (or at least those whose copyright has lapsed which is the vast majority of works worth reading since so much of what has been written in the past few decades is either not worth reading or simply a variation on these older, much better-written works).  Without a well-educated citizenry, democracy is cruel joke, as our founders knew well (and which is why Thomas Jefferson in particular advocated so hard for the then radical idea of universal public education (and the even more radical idea of making that education secular – the University of Virginia was the first college founded in America without an official religious affiliation).  We must read.  Now we can.  

  • Kristen Phelps


    Hello! I’m Kristen Phelps from the University of South Alabama.
    I’m taking EDM 310 with Dr. Strange and I was assigned to your blog! To be
    honest I wasn’t aware of Mr. Hart or Project
    Gutenberg before I read this post. After reading this though, it is extremely
    sad that such an influential man died so young. What
    an intelligent man he was to have said, “twenty or 30 years from now, there’s going to be some gizmo that
    kids carry around in their back pocket that has everything in it — including
    our books, if they want.” He was defiantly a man that could think far beyond his time and see into the future of technology. I really enjoyed reading this article and learning about Mr. Hart and Project Gutenberg. Thank you for sharing.
    Kristen Phelps

    Also, feel free to check out My Class Blog
    or Tweet Me

  • Sglass1

    A Library at your computer, how wonderful. A fews ago I typed in “ebook” and came up with project Gutenberg. There any many books I never read as a kid and there all here. FREE!
    If I am going to buy a book I want paper. So I will never buy a ebook but there enough free books here to last for years and many are classics. There are many in different subjects.
    I never new who created this website nor the ebook. A big thanks, now thank I know and it’s a little late. One of the best reasons to own a computer. You can download a whole library in a few minutes in many different formats.

  • Mapejrano

    Project Gutenberg won’t die with the death of its founder.  As I just found out a few weeks ago, it depends on the work of thousands of volunteers to find, digitize, proofread and format the books that become part of the Project Gutenberg library of titles.  I’ve been proofreading and hope to make a long-term commitment as a volunteer, and I ask those of you who are interested in P.G. to consider the possibility of doing so as well.

    • AntiqueCollector

      I agree in part, but not completely and I hope you can shed some light on the reasons for this. I have always been so happy with the Project. I have been reading free e-books and was very happy this info was even available to me, let alone free. But recently I bought about 20 old and rare books at an estate sale. One in particular, I was looking at and noticed that the ending was different than I had read online. Every word was exactly correct, but the book that I purchased ended while the ebook added a chapter I don’t even believe was written by the author. Another, the Golden Scorpion appears to be changed from the original first edition and now looks like an ani-Chinese book than a true Masterpiece of Oriental mystery. I’ve even noticed Titles that have changed. Maybe I’m the only one who sees this as censorship and elimination of the true text but I’ll be keeping my originals. I certainly don’t plan on reading things that are not the intended words of the author. If I was in to that, I’d read the bible.

  • Thanks for paying homage to these 70s pioneers, who will be, increasingly, departing the mortal coil in the months and years ahead. The PG vision, whatever the details, will live on. I’ve been toying around with the free Calibre software this past week, which easily converts text for use in just about any digital device. It’s another tool that reinforces the mindset that information  wants to be unfettered. Most of all, thanks for the hat. It represents a hippie sensibility about the world that’s one of the important gifts of my generation.

  • Tmarkgibson

    Mike Hart taught me how to go “garage sailing” and how not to be embarrassed about being a pack rat bookworm.  I never dd catch on to the putting lotso sugar on an already too sweet pizza at Garcia’s, but it was fun to watch.  I’ll miss Mike.


  • Louise

    Rest in Peace, Michael Hart. Long live Project Gutenberg!

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