Michael Hart, 1947-2011, Defined the Landscape of Digital Publishing


Michael S. Hart (left) and Gregory B. Newby, chief executive of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, at a conference in 2006.
September 12, 2011

Michael Stern Hart, the single-minded visionary from Illinois who created and promoted the groundbreaking online library Project Gutenberg, died September 6 at age 64.

Though I've been online since the late 80s, I never personally met Mr. Hart. But for the entire trajectory of my time in digital publishing, he helped define the landscape for me.

Project Gutenberg was inarguably the birthplace of the e-book. Today we don't think twice about downloading a book to our Kindle, tablet, Web browser, or cellphone. But in 1971, when Mr. Hart officially began Project Gutenberg, or even in the early 1990s, when it began to reach critical mass, e-books were not just unusual—they were unheard-of.

As he wrote in "The History and Philosophy of Project Gutenberg" (1992) in 1971, after having been given $100,000,000 worth of computing time on the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mr. Hart, then an undergraduate, decided there was no kind of "normal computing" that could repay the value of the computer time he had been given.

His solution: "to create $100,000,000 worth of value in some other manner." An hour and 47 minutes later, in what has become part of digital-publishing mythology, he typed in the text of the Declaration of Independence and posted it everywhere he could (causing some of those early networks to crash). Project Gutenberg was born.

Mr. Hart believed that he had "earned" his computing time because the Declaration of Independence would eventually be an electronic fixture in libraries around the world. The greatest value of computers, he wrote, was "the storage, retrieval, and searching of what was stored in our libraries." Before ePub, e-books, before Wikipedia, even before the Web, Mr. Hart saw that digital communications had the potential to transform the humanities.

I remember the magic of reading the Declaration of Independence by way of a Telnet connection, long before the Web made such things trivial. It was, at the time, as amazing as going around the world via Gopher servers, a few years later.

Though it would be the early 90s before the project's list got past 50 texts, what a force it became in Internet culture. Project Gutenberg matured as the Internet did, and Mr. Hart stoutly maintained its mission even as the Web expanded the research-focused Internet into the commercial sector—holding high the flag of the pure potential of an open, digitally connected society.

What made Mr. Hart a hero to many of us was his pragmatic (even dogmatic) adherence to radical openness, via open standards and free access to literature, championing the philosophy that humanity's historical heritage belonged to, well, humanity itself. That, of course, is the underpinning of the argument for open-access science, humanities, social sciences, and every other field of study, and Mr. Hart's example became a touchstone.

It's worth remembering that when Mr. Hart was forming the founding principles of Project Gutenberg, the principle of openness was utterly radical. From the 1970s through the late 1990s, the paradigm of publishing was built on the presumption of ownership. Even if the Declaration of Independence stated that we had certain "inalienable rights," the right to read that Declaration was pretty much limited to those with library cards, or to those who could purchase a copy from a publisher who had invested significant sums in the composition, layout, printing, distribution, and sales of the Declaration as a product.

To imagine, in the 1990s, much less the 1970s, that the Declaration of Independence (not to mention an Alice in Wonderland, all of Shakespeare, the Bible, and more) could be read, free, by anyone with a connection to a community bulletin-board network, a subscription to Prodigy, or later, an Internet connection—was beyond radical: It was visionary.

'Plain-Vanilla ASCII'

Michael Hart was a lifelong tinkerer—he was an early garage-experimenter with radio, with hi-fi, and later, with computer technology, from Apple to Atari to CP/M, Unix, MS-DOS, and other operating systems.

His early experiences clearly informed his choices regarding Project Gutenberg. He was committed to lo-fi—the lowest reasonable common denominator of textual presentation. That was for utterly pragmatic reasons: He wanted his e-texts to be readable on 99 percent of the existing systems of any era, and so insisted on "Plain-Vanilla ASCII" versions of all the e-texts generated by Project Gutenberg.

That may seem a small—even retro—conceit, but in fact it was huge. From the 80s on, as the Internet slowly became more publicly manifest, there were many temptations to be "up to date": a file format like WordStar, TeX, or LaTeX in the 1980s, or XyWrite, MS Word, or Adobe Acrobat in the 90s and 2000s, might provide far greater formatting features (italics, bold, tab stops, font selections, extracts, page representations, etc.) than ASCII. But because Mr. Hart had tinkered with technology all his life, he knew that "optimal formats" always change, and that today's hi-fi format was likely to evolve into some higher-fi format in the next year or two. Today's ePub version 3.01 was, to Mr. Hart, just another mile marker along the highway. To read an ASCII e-text, via FTP, or via a Web browser, required no change of the presentational software—thereby ensuring the broadest possible readership.

Mr. Hart's choice meant that the Project Gutenberg corpus—now 36,000 works—would always remain not just available, but readable. What's more, it has been growing, in every system since.

Mr. Hart not only championed open access of public-domain material, but open access without proprietary displays, without the need for special software, without the requirement for anything but the simplest of connections. "Public Domain" was not just a legal status, for Mr. Hart, but a rallying cry. Through the principle of "conscious decentralization," he enabled outside organizations to disseminate Project Gutenberg's works in full-text form, to anyone interested.

In 2007, Project Gutenberg's e-texts were included (with multilingual versions) on the platform for One Laptop per Child (a nonprofit program offering inexpensive laptops to children in developing countries), as well as in hundreds of other free e-book collections worldwide. Today, Gutenberg Australia, Canada, Europe, and others are adding to the corpus.

Included in every distributed collection is the Declaration of Independence, as well as every other "e-text" in "vanilla ASCII" produced by Project Gutenberg in the preceding years. Mr. Hart's grand vision of optimal utility, openness, and accessibility, constructed in the 1970s, continues to bear fruit, 40 years later. His $100,000,000 debt has more than been paid off.

Michael Jon Jensen is director of strategic Web communications at the National Academies Press.