Michael S. Hart, the founder of the Project Gutenberg, passed away this week at age 64 in Urbana, Illinois. He single-handedly created the first free e-books and then organized a worldwide effort to give books their first digital form — as ASCII text. His chief goal was to make sure e-books were accessible to anyone for free on any device. His work in creating a truly public library is a lasting legacy, and Hart should be considered among the founders of the Free and Open Source movement. Many of the early Gutenberg titles were littered with typos. However, a distributed army of typists and proofreaders began collaborating to improve the quality and fidelity of these books. Now, these e-books exist in all necessary formats, even audio. The fact that free e-books are even part of the commercial ecosystem now dominated by Amazon and Apple is a result of Hart’s work to keep them in the public domain.

Today, you can find the world’s literature in Project Gutenberg and even unexpected gems like “A Rudimentary Treatise on Clocks, Watches and Bells by Edmund Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe,” written in the 19th century.

Hart’s obituary noted that we was something of a maker his whole life:

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.
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.

I have to believe that Michael’s tinkering gave him the confidence to know he could build a digital public library, starting in true DIY fashion by doing it himself and then inviting others to collaborate with him. In the 1990s, a lot of government, academic, and foundation money was spent thinking about and designing digital libraries in 1990s. Michael’s labors have had far more social and cultural impact. As they say, let Michael S. Hart be a lesson to all of us.

I enjoyed the final thought of the obituary in Hart’s own words: “Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that.”

Editor’s Note: Michael was also one of the members of the RepRap Project team, which we covered in today’s Disruptive Technology post.