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Obituary for Michael Stern Hart, Project Gutenberg Founder (gutenberg.org)
313 points by hornokplease 955 days ago | comments


bane 955 days ago | link

Really, sad. But his legacy lives on in one of the finest projects on the internet. It's provided me and my family with countless hours of enjoyment and immensely lowered the cost of ownership of my Kindle.

Imagine my wonderful surprise when I found not just one, but an entire library of Oz and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that I quickly disseminated to all of the youngsters in my extended family ... then watched them spend hours entertained by these century old tails of fantasy and adventure.

No project has proven more firmly that our modern endless extensions to copyright is hopelessly wrong headed.

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Mizza 955 days ago | link

> No project has proven more firmly that our modern endless extensions to copyright is hopelessly wrong headed.

This. Wikipedia is a fantastic free cultural work, but it can never replace the historical and cultural significance of free primary sources themselves.

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SkyMarshal 955 days ago | link

Meant to upvote, accidentally downvoted. Hopefully others will fix that for me and un-grey your comment.

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spanktheuser 955 days ago | link

Michael Hart was a fantastic guy to know back in the early 90s as the Internet was transforming from a research network into a popular phenomenon. He'd foreseen this eventuality in the late 70s and made Project Gutenberg in part so it would be there when the world needed it. I'll always remember Michael rollerblading through Champaign-Urbana in his trademark ruby spandex singlet. And his incredible ability to scrounge computer parts. He once invited me to drive through the night to score an obsolete supercomputer that was allegedly sitting beside a dumpster at the University of Minnesota. He wanted to get to those hard drives before the rain did. Sadly, I turned him down - I had a first date that night. I don't remember her name. But I'll always remember Michael. And miss him.

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bootload 955 days ago | link

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

I really like this quote. I discovered Gutenberg looking for something to read on the train pre-ebooks days. I really got sick of having to take books so I wanted a way to get books onto my PalmIII. [0] Searching around for anything in text format I stumbled onto Gutenberg. How do you get the text into the palm in a readable format? Using open source software like Plkr. [1] If you ran Linux the morning routine would go something like this:

* sync PC with Palm ~ http://flic.kr/p/mhmuK

* manually select Gutenburg novels to read & add to plkr.

* plkr client would crawl various web sites I read, compress the pages & sync with the pilot.

* read on the train.

I'd make this morning/evening habit. I benefited from Harts vision for many years.

    "My father read an assortment of these made 
     available to him by Cambridge University in 
     England for several months in a glass room 
     constructed for the purpose.  To the best 
     of my knowledge he read ALL those available. 
     . .in great detail. . .and determined from 
     the various changes, that Shakespeare most 
     likely did not write in nearly as many of 
     a variety of errors we credit him for, even 
     though he was in/famous for signing his name 
     with several different spellings." [2]
Hart was certainly well read. You can open random classics like Macbeth & find his comments like this one in the forward of Macbeth.

[0] 2005OCT151730, Palm III, diary in use ~ http://www.flickr.com/photos/bootload/52909493/in/set-720575...

[1] "An Open Source Success Story: A History of Plucker" ~ http://www.plkr.org/about

[2] Project Gutenberg, "The Tragedie of Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, July, 2000. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2264/pg2264.txt

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gruseom 954 days ago | link

"All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people." I really like this quote.

That's not the quote. Ironically, it has been bowdlerized: http://books.google.com/books?id=fYDSuENw1BoC&pg=PA189&#...

Besides using correct syntax for 1903, the language of the original is incomparably more alive.

This can't be Hart's doing. A man who devoted his life to preserving original texts (including this quote itself in http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/26107/pg26107.txt) would never have had the bad taste to botch it like this. I suppose if whoever did had bothered to quote the title, he would have renamed it People and Superpeople.

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bootload 954 days ago | link

thx @gruseom 2 things I didn't know, source of the quote & bowdlerized: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Bowdler

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warwick 955 days ago | link

Five years ago I was at HOPE Number Six and Michael Hart was the Saturday keynote speaker, giving a talk on his work at Project Gutenberg.  I didn't know very much about it, but I recognized the name.  There were Project Gutenberg discs floating around the conference so I snagged one and had a look.

I don't really remember anything specific from the talk, but I remember it was inspiring.  It was called "Using eBooks to Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy".  There's audio of the talk online, and I think I need to hear it again.

The next day was the last day of the conference, and as was usual Jello Biafra was the getting far less attention than the other keynote speakers.  They'd closed off the back part of the main hall, a hall which had been filled to capacity and then some for Michael, and some of us were tossing around beach balls.  I pounded one particularly hard and hit some guy in the back of the head with it.  When he turned around I recognized Michael.  I don't think he was too happy with me in that moment.

With the eloquence that only a twenty year old can muster, I stuck my hand out and said "I love your work.  It's fucking absurd."  That's about the highest compliment I can give a person, and I'm glad to see that Shaw quote in the obituary.  It says what I was awkwardly trying to express.

The tension drained out of the situation, and he shook my hand before turning back to his companion and returning to his conversation.  I went back to playing with beach balls.

I admire what Michael built, and I admire how he did it.  Project Gutenberg was slow but steady, and will continue past his death.  I can only aspire to leaving that kind of a legacy.

Goodbye Michael.  I loved your work.  It's fucking absurd.

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pragmatic 955 days ago | link

Good interview: http://poynder.blogspot.com/2006/03/interview-with-michael-h...

(Link at the end to a pdf with interview).

I was curious about how he funded this project.

Excerpt from interview: RP: Do you get a salary from the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, which was founded, I believe, in 2000? MH: No. We don't attract enough funding for that. RP: So what do you live on today? MH: It's been two years since my last pay check, but if you save all your salary when you do get one, $100,000 will go 10 years with no salary, at $10,000 a year.

Interesting that he lived so cheaply in order to work on something he loved.

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dredmorbius 955 days ago | link

Working on something you truly love has a very high value. And that value isn't taxable ;-)

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petercooper 955 days ago | link

Fancy adding something like "Founder of Project Gutenberg" to the title here? Just think it'd catch on better, and he's definitely a guy worth remembering :-)

Update: Eh, that'll do ;-)

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abalashov 955 days ago | link

I suppose many would consider this both indecorous and perverse, but I really am curious about the cause of death in cases such as these. It is usually omitted in cases of suicide or some particularly nuanced, possibly embarrassing disease.

I don't care about specifics, I am just disturbed when all reports tiptoe around the cause of death as if it just "spontaneously" happened to a man who was merely 64.

It sounds from some of his recent public writings like he may have been struggling with a terminal disease, but not being an associate of his, I have no way of knowing that.

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officemonkey 955 days ago | link

People die at all ages and for all kinds of reasons. If your curiosity is morbid, you can probably hunt around for it. If you have respect for others privacy, you'll accept the information given.

Obituaries should celebrate a life, not explain a death.

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alister 955 days ago | link

It is not unhealthy or insensitive (which is what "morbid" means) to know cause of death.

Knowing cause of death has value for public discussion about policy, health, and medicine. Even if it's something like suicide or AIDS, we'll know that we should be paying more attention to preventing those.

IMDB and Wikipedia always list cause of death when it's known. Are they morbid too?

The obituary writer is free to write it any way he wants, but you seem to be arguing that it's wrong to include the cause of death. The reason we're reading this particular obituary at all is because we want to know more about the person. How is a list of surviving relatives, his home town, or age any more relevant or important to mention than cause of death?

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bryanlarsen 954 days ago | link

The cause of death is important to know in the aggregate: 1 person died last year in the United States from alien laser beams.

In the specific, it's morbid, yes.

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abalashov 954 days ago | link

Obituaries should celebrate a life, not explain a death.

I agree, but I don't think mentioning or making an allusion to a cause of death and then going on to talk about the person's life for 98% of the text really undermines that mission.

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officemonkey 953 days ago | link

I suppose that decision is up to the obituary writer.

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anon5 954 days ago | link

I fully agree with you. I too can not do with partial information, especially in such matters - when the news is disturbing like death.

Particularly, if its a case of a young person dying, not knowing the reason can haunt you for some time. And few times, I have felt the shock has diminished a bit, once you know the cause of death.

But that said, if the family and friends conceal something because the deceased person wanted to, then that's also perfectly understandable.

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kragen 955 days ago | link

In some cases it can be hard to tell. When one friend of mine died, it was months before we were able to conclude for certain that it wasn't a suicide.

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russellallen 955 days ago | link

Project Gutenberg is a vision of what the future could be if we choose. RIP Michael, you done good.

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sspencer 955 days ago | link

I saw a wonderful talk at HOPE 6 concerning Project Gutenberg, and can only assume it was Michael Hart speaking. It made me donate on the spot.

As a staunch supporter of paper books I don't often read eBooks, but I can completely understand and appreciate what an immense resource they are to those less fortunate (and picky about their medium!) than I am. Rest in Peace, Mr. Hart. Your legacy will live for years and years to come.

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wyclif 955 days ago | link

This is 403ing now, which is a shame because I've been using Project Gutenberg since like forever and really wanted to read this. Can anybody copypasta?

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ig1 955 days ago | link

Here you go:

Michael Stern Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington on March 8, 1947. He died on September 6, 2011 in his home in Urbana, Illinois, at the age of 64. His is survived by his mother, Alice, and brother, Bennett. Michael was an Eagle Scout (Urbana Troop 6 and Explorer Post 12), and served in the Army in Korea during the Vietnam era.

Hart was best known for his 1971 invention of electronic books, or eBooks. He founded Project Gutenberg, which is recognized as one of the earliest and longest-lasting online literary projects. He often told this story of how he had the idea for eBooks. He had been granted access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On July 4 1971, after being inspired by a free printed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he decided to type the text into a computer, and to transmit it to other users on the computer network. From this beginning, the digitization and distribution of literature was to be Hart's life's work, spanning over 40 years.

Hart was an ardent technologist and futurist. A lifetime tinkerer, he acquired hands-on expertise with the technologies of the day: radio, hi-fi stereo, video equipment, and of course computers. He constantly looked into the future, to anticipate technological advances. One of his favorite speculations was that someday, everyone would be able to have their own copy of the Project Gutenberg collection or whatever subset desired. This vision came true, thanks to the advent of large inexpensive computer disk drives, and to the ubiquity of portable mobile devices, such as cell phones.

Hart also predicted the enhancement of automatic translation, which would provide all of the world's literature in over a hundred languages. While this goal has not yet been reached, by the time of his death Project Gutenberg hosted eBooks in 60 different languages, and was frequently highlighted as one of the best Internet-based resources.

A lifetime intellectual, Hart was inspired by his parents, both professors at the University of Illinois, to seek truth and to question authority. One of his favorite recent quotes, credited to George Bernard Shaw, is characteristic of his approach to life:

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people." Michael prided himself on being unreasonable, and only in the later years of life did he mellow sufficiently to occasionally refrain from debate. Yet, his passion for life, and all the things in it, never abated.

Frugal to a fault, Michael glided through life with many possessions and friends, but very few expenses. He used home remedies rather than seeing doctors. He fixed his own house and car. He built many computers, stereos, and other gear, often from discarded components.

Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.

In July 2011, Michael wrote these words, which summarize his goals and his lasting legacy: “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." He had this advice for those seeking to make literature available to all people, especially children:

"Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that." 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.

This obituary is granted to the public domain by its author, Dr. Gregory B. Newby.

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kuahyeow 955 days ago | link

Try http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Michael_S._Hart

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mechanical_fish 955 days ago | link

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.

He sure was right about that. It's one of the really big ideas, the kind that is going to take several more decades to really sink in.

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steve8918 955 days ago | link

I really admire people who strongly believe in something and dedicate their lives to it. I wish I were made of the same stuff.

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0x12 955 days ago | link

We're all made of the same stuff. You are too. You can do almost anything other people can, all you have to do is get up and do it. Some do, some don't. There is still plenty of time for you.

Rest in peace Michael Hart and thank you for endless evenings of reading both in the past and in the future.

Project Gutenberg will live on forever or at least as long as a single copy remains. Building a library is one very worthwhile thing to do with your life.

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danieldk 955 days ago | link

I remember going to a dual-talk in Amsterdam of Michael Hart and Richard Stallman. I went to see Stallman, I returned energized by Hart's vision. He was a convincing visionary person that dedicated is life to the good of all people.

The world needs more Michael Stern Harts.

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ryanwaggoner 954 days ago | link

The George Bernard Shaw quote is wrong. The actual quote is:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Source: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/26107/pg26107.html

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beerglass 955 days ago | link

Am I the only one who is getting 403 forbidden error on the link?

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sixtofour 955 days ago | link

Go to the main site, then follow the obit link.

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neanderdog 954 days ago | link

Bless you good Sir.

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