This week, ebooks turned 46! Hard to believe they’ve been around so long, but it’s true: on July 4th, 1971, Michael S. Hart created the very first ebook by typing out the United States Declaration of Independence into his computer. That was the start of something huge: Hart went on to found Project Gutenberg, to make public domain ebooks freely available to anyone who wanted to read them. His mission was to “help break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy” and the best way to do that, he thought, was to “give as many ebooks to as many people as possible”.
Today Project Gutenberg offers over 54,000 free public domain ebooks for the world to read, and that number keeps growing thanks to the dedicated volunteers who help scan and proofread them every day. That’s an amazing number and a great advancement toward Hart’s dream: one billion free ebooks.
When Hart invented ebooks, ebook readers were at best a far-off dream; computers were still few and far between and the internet as we know it didn’t yet exist. Looking at my Cybook, knowing I can download an ebook in a few seconds to read any time I want, it’s easy to forget just how far this technology has come in just a few decades, and how amazing it is. It really is almost “indistinguishable from magic”.
Michael S. Hart died on the 6th of September 2011. The Guardian wrote a lovely obituary for him as did his friend Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive. We’re glad he lived long enough to see the invention of e-readers, and the beginnings of a beautiful love story between readers everywhere and ebooks.