Michael Hart – The Man Who Saw the Future


To be embarrassingly honest, when I first heard of Michael Hart, I confused him with Bret Hart. Both are authors, well technically. Perhaps you will recognise Bret, by his professional moniker of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, a founding member of The Hart Foundation. Yes, the WWE-wrestler who co-authored a book.

The other Hart was a visionary who wrote his own books, and re-wrote (re-typed) many out of copyright books. Michael Hart was the founder of Project Gutenberg.

In fact, to call him the founder of Project Gutenberg, might be 100% accurate, but it does not go nearly far enough to describe this man. Even calling him a visionary does not do him justice.

As you might remember from a previous article, Michael Hart is generally seen as the inventor, creator and/or father of e-books. On 4 July, 1971, he (re-)typed the (American) Declaration of Independence. This is recognised as the first e-book.

Remember in 1971 computers were still tiny and extremely new. NASA received the ILLIAC IV super computer. This monster featured the ability to do 200 Million FLOPS, or FLoating-point Operations Per Second. This might sound impressive but the Intel Core i7 980 XE, reached 109 gigaFLOPS.

Another computing breakthrough of the year 1971 was the release of the Intel 1103 memory chip. This monster was capable of storing 1KB. (My laptop would need more than 8 000 000 of these to get to the 8GB memory it features now.)

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Hopefully this two-paragraph tangent makes you realise that computers were rarer and more exotic in 1971 than nearly anything you can think of, including world peace. For him to have to have envisioned the possibility of the e-book in 1971 is, therefore, truly astounding. Then to go on and create Project Gutenberg is no short of a wonder. Initially he typed the books himself. By 1987 he typed three hundred and thirteen books. These included the Bible, dramas by Shakespeare and Mark Twain’s works. The copyright of these had all lapsed by then.

Michael Hart also made Jimmy Wales rich, famous and successful, in a manner of speaking. (Jimmy Wales is best known as the co-founder and promoter of the online non-profit encyclopedia Wikipedia). Back in the early 1990’s, Hart was involved in developing Interpedia, “a free and openly accessible “Internet Encyclopedia.

Interpedia is now not much more than a page on Wikipedia, but Hart was involved in setting the tone and direction of the future. Remember that the Internet (as world-wide-web that most of us know it currently as) was only born in 1989. Hart was involved in something that would one day become a massive success.

More recently, Hart was involved in The RepRap Project. Replicating Rapid Prototyper is a 3D printer that can print most of its own components, and therefore can self-replicate.

This 3D printer would then be able to create more 3D printers that would be able to print “anything” for a fraction of the cost. With 3D printing becoming the latest fad, we know that it allows one to create complex products without needing expensive factories.

Michael Hart passed away in 2011 at the youthful age of 64. Interestingly, making money never interested him. In his own words, “I know that sounds odd to most people, but I just never bought into the money system all that much. I never spent it when I got it. It’s all a matter of perspective”.

His approach reminds us that doing something for the sake of doing it is its own reward. Writing for the sake of writing might therefore be a better cause than writing to get rich. Hold on to this wisdom of a true visionary while you struggle to stay afloat publishing e-book after e-book.

“All hail Michael Hart!” says Zen Scribe. Amen to that.



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