Michael S Hart: a man of many words

October 18th, 2011 by

microtask_michael_hartAs people everywhere continue to mourn the loss of Steve Jobs (mainly by buying yet another iPhone), spare a thought for another recently departed tech visionary: Michael S Hart.

Like Jobs, Hart was a pioneer amongst geeks. Way back in 1971 (when “the Internet” had a grand total of 100 users) Hart founded Project Gutenberg, a non-profit enterprise to “encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks”. As a commenter on our recent Google Ngrams blog pointed out, not only was Project Gutenberg the first large-scale project to digitize books, it used distributed labor to do it.

Since 1981 Project Gutenberg has been run entirely by online volunteers (for the first 10 years, Hart apparently typed in every single book himself). Unlike Steve “control freak” Jobs, Michael Hart described himself as “not a very bossy boss”. To this day, the crowd (all 20,000 of them) is in control of pretty much everything at Gutenberg.org, from selecting and scanning new books to proof-reading, translating and digital formatting. Thanks to them, the complete text of over 36,000 eBooks is now available online.

When he first started out, Michael Hart was dismissed as “that crazy guy who wants to put Shakespeare in a computer”. Forty years on, Project Gutenberg is a piece of crowdsourcing history. Every digitization project since – from Google Books to Digitalkoot – owes a debt to Hart’s vision and, of course, to the literary dedication of the Gutenberg crowd.