Michael Hart, who died on September 6, was one of the relatively unsung heroes of the digital revolution. He is generally credited as the inventor of the ebook, founded Project Gutenberg, and devoted his life to making copyright-free ebooks available over the internet. More accurately, forty years ago, he was the first information provider on the ARPAnet, before the internet even existed. And unlike many digital developers, he wasn't in it for the money: he lived in relative or actual poverty all his life.
If you want to know more about Hart's life, you can read the obituary I wrote for today's Guardian. I hope this will prompt you to go further, and check the following sources.
Obituary for Michael Stern Hart from Project Gutenberg, by Dr Gregory B. Newby is the official Project Gutenberg obituary. Dr Newby was the first and only chief executive of the non-for-profit Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, which has looked after the project since 2000.
The Basement Interviews: Michael Hart, by Richard Poynder (PDF) is the longest and most detailed email interview with Hart, and provides a lot of insight. I quoted it, obviously, but I had to leave a lot of interesting stuff out.
Michael Hart Interviewed by NPR about Digital Libraries on 15 May, 2007 (MP3) provides the opportunity to hear the man on the radio, rather than simply read about him. It's a Science Friday podcast, and includes Michael Hart, Brewster Kahle and Stanford University librarian Michael Keller. Hart starts by giving his well-known account of the project's founding.
Michael Hart of Project Gutenberg Passes is an obituary by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive (which includes the Wayback Machine). This is an important source for three reasons. First, it includes Hart's goodbye email: he was planning to leave the day-to-day operation of Project Gutenberg.
Second, it includes a comment from Hart's important collaborator, Mark Zinzow, who helped Hart making the change from one man typing to a crowdsourced volunteer project. He says: "I took a lot of flack in my job by hosting his project on my desk for many years before University policy put an end to it."
What I think I’ll miss the most was the joy he felt in giving to others, on the large scale fighting excessive copyright and illiteracy, and on the small scale when he’d gift me with an odd item he’d found at a local garage sale. He also helped me find a place to begin my annual migration to Hawaii about six years ago. I have fond memories of sharing Waikiki sunsets with Michael, and biking around Diamond Head Crater. I hope he is enjoying renewed strength in the afterlife.
Third, it includes some photos of Hart that go beyond the usual mug-shots. (We used on of the photos with the Guardian obituary.)
50 Years of Public Computing at the University of Illinois: Project Gutenberg (1971) , finally, provides a great set of links that explain the background to the project, and its progress.
In Hart's email, published on Kahle's blog, he says: "As most of my friends know, I have accomplished all of the goalsI have set for myself throughout my life," but it has been a struggle. "I can tell you that pressures of Winter, here in Illinois, plus those of advancing age, make it more and more difficult to look forward to more of this." He was planning to make "A Graceful Exit" that would enable him to spend more time in the milder climate of Hawaii.
Sadly, 60 days later, he was dead.