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In Memoriam: Michael S. Hart, E-Book Pioneer

The book world was saddened last week by the death of Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, at the age of 64. Project Gutenberg represented the first significant attempt to digitize literature, having been launched in 1971 when Hart typed the text of the Declaration of Independence into a computer. Accordingly, Hart is credited with the invention of the e-book. His project’s website remains to this day a popular, convenient source for free electronic editions of public-domain literary works.

I’ve always been a fan of Project Gutenberg, which may have the distinction of being the only major Web resource to retain a distinctly ‘90s-era look and feel. Though its features have changed with the times (you can now download e-texts for Kindle or share them via Facebook and Twitter), its design remains proudly square—right down to the Times New Roman and Courier fonts. (Courier dominated even more in older versions; the site used to look like it had been created by typewriter.) Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that Project Gutenberg has never abandoned its ‘90s spirit either. Together with Wikipedia, it seems to me the site that best embodies the mission of the early Web: to serve as a kind of superlibrary, distributing knowledge widely and freely for its own sake. That idealism was bound to have its limits, but Hart helped ensure that it wouldn’t die out completely. He’ll be much missed.


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