Michael Hart, the man who created what is considered to be the first ever e-book, has died aged 64.
What the American came up with back in July, 1971 was a far cry from the slick experience you get with books on today’s e-readers, but his was the first step, and also resulted in the creation of Project Gutenberg.
While attending the University of Illinois in the early 70s, Hart was given access to a mainframe computer. He thought long about what to actually do with this unique opportunity.
The idea for the e-book came as a result of a trip to, of all places, a supermarket. In a 2002 interview, Hart talked about the special day.
“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 We were just coming up on the American Bicentennial and they put faux parchment historical documents in with the groceries.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.”
Hart continued: “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.”
And with that, the Declaration of Independence became the first of what is now an online library of over 36,000 out-of-copyright books, all available for free from Project Gutenberg.
In an obituary on the Project Gutenberg website, Dr. Gregory B. Newby wrote: “Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of e-books was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that e-books are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to e-books can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity…..Michael is remembered as a dear friend, who sacrificed personal luxury to fight for literacy, and for preservation of public domain rights and resources, towards the greater good. ”
Hart died on Tuesday at his home in Urbana, Illinois.