Innovation/Global Crisis Blog

How eBooks were Invented, and How Michael Hart Changed the World

By Shlomo Maital

 Michael Hart


  The person who invented e-Books died last week, at the age of 64.  His name is Michael Hart, and his little-known story shows how one person with one idea can truly change the world. *

   Hart was a student at Univ. of Illinois.  (Recall that this university was a major pioneer in computer science, thanks to Marc Andreesson, who thought up Mosaic while at U of Illinois, Mosaic later became Netscape, the Internet browser).  He was given a user’s account on a Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer in the school’s Materials Research lab in 1971, an account worth, according to him, $100 m. at the time.  He tried to think up a project that would justify the cost, even though it was free for him.  On July 4, 1971, he attended an Independence Day fireworks celebration and later stopped at a grocery store. With his purchases, he received a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  Hart typed the document and intended to send it as an email to all the users of ARPANET (the precursor of the World Wide Web).  But a colleague said this would crash the system! (The whole Declaration is only 1,357 words!).  So instead, he posted a notice saying the text could be downloaded.  Hart said he wanted to “encourage the creation and distribution of e-books” in order “to help break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy.”. 

   Hart’s initiative and modest idea gave birth to Project Gutenberg, which today lists more than 30,000 downloadable e-Books in 60 languages.    The Project got off to a slow start.  Hart created only 313 e-books by 1997.  But by 2021, Project Gutenberg’s 50th anniversary, it is predicted there will be a billion e-Books available – and, said Hart in an email,  “you will be able to carry them all in one hand!”. 

Hart once told a magazine called Searcher: “I was just waiting for the world to realize I’d knocked it over. You’ve heard of cow-tipping?  The cow had been tipped over, but it took 17 years for it to wake up and say, ‘Moo’. “

    Rest in peace, Michael Hart.  You’ve showed us how an idea and a very tiny initial proof-of-concept can snowball into a change-the-world industry.  And best of all, you lived to see it happen. 

  •  “Michael Hart, 64, pioneer in e-book distribution”, by William Grimes, Global NYT Sat-Sunday Sept. 10-11, 2011.