The Legacy of Project Gutenberg Founder, Michael S. Hart

The number-one most downloaded e-text is the Kama Sutra, but the list of early uploads to the site reveals a lofty mission
gutenberg1.jpgMichael S. Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg and inventor of the e-book, passed away on Tuesday. His site today houses more than 37,000 digital texts, legally free for download to anyone living in the United States.

Hart began his effort in 1971 when he typed up a copy of the Declaration of Independence. It seems fitting that Thomas Jefferson's manifesto should have been the inspiration for Hart's brainchild; its ideals and spirit dovetail nicely with the Hart's own commitments to distributing books far and wide.

Hart's other early additions to the project further hint at the vision behind his site. After the Declaration of Independence, the next titles in the database were the Bill of Rights (note: added before the Constitution itself), John F. Kennedy's inaugural address (famous for the ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you line), Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and, sliding in at number five, the U.S. Constitution. Nine of the first 10 entries are civic documents important to American history. Number 10 is the King James Bible, which didn't appear until 1989, a decade after the first nine books. The first work of fiction entered to the database is Moby Dick at number 12.

In an obituary on the Project Gutenberg website, Hart is remembered for the depth of his commitment to literacy. But the early texts speak to a core civic hope that is related but distinct: that there is power in ideas and that by spreading them we could make this country better. Sure, the number-one most downloaded book on the site is, by a long shot, the Kama Sutra, with more than 25,000 downloads. But Michael S. Hart, and by association his project, were about something much bigger than that.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.


Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In