An author, technologist, and futurist, Hart invented “electronic books” — now simply known as eBooks — when he was given an account on the mainframe computer at the University of Illinois in Urbana (from which school he graduated in just two years). He noticed his account was created on July 4, 1971 — independence day — and decided to commemorate the date by typing a copy of the Declaration of Independence into the computer, and making it available to everyone on the network. Six people downloaded copies — enough to encourage him to make it the first entry for what became a lifelong undertaking: Project Gutenberg.
The Project digitizes books (starting with the classics, from the Bible to Homer to Shakespeare and Twain) to make them available to everyone, for free. “Anytime anyone owed me a favor,” he said 1996, “it was, ‘Here, type in some Hamlet.’” Project Gutenberg, named for the inventor of the printing press, now has more than 36,000 books in 60 languages, which can be downloaded to your PC, eBook reader, or other device in a variety of formats, and with its partners facilitates access to a total of 100,000 books — all for free. (Some books aren’t available in all countries for free, as copyright terms may expire at different times in different places.) “One thing about eBooks that most people haven’t thought much is that eBooks are the very first thing that we’re all able to have as much as we want other than air,” Hart said. “Think about that for a moment and you realize we are in the right job.” He died at his home in Urbana on September 6. He was 64.