Project Gutenberg Born

Forty years ago today, Michael Hart keyed in The United States Declaration of Independence to the mainframe he was using, all in upper case, because there was no lower case yet. Hart was a student at the University of Illinois and was given $100,000,000 of computer time at the Materials Research Lab.   Hart (in 2009): “On July 4, 1971, while still a freshman at the University of Illinois (UI), I decided to spend the night at the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the UI Materials Research Lab, rather than walk miles home in the summer heat, only to come back hours later to start another day of school. I stopped on the way to do a little grocery shopping to get through the night, and day, and along with the groceries they put in the faux parchment copy of The U.S. Declaration of Independence that became quite literally the cornerstone of Project Gutenberg. That night, as it turned out, I received my first computer account – I had been hitchhiking on my brother’s best friend’s name, who ran the computer on the night shift. When I got a first look at the huge amount of computer money I was given, I decided I had to do something extremely worthwhile to do justice to what I had been given. This was such a serious, and intense thought process for a college freshman, my first thought was that I had better eat something to get up enough energy to think of something worthwhile enough to repay the cost of all that computer time. As I emptied out groceries, the faux parchment Declaration of Independence fell out, and the light literally went on over my head like in the cartoons and comics… I knew what the future of computing, and the internet, was going to be… ‘The Information Age.’ The rest, as they say, is history.”

To send a 5 Kilobyte file to the 100 users of the embryonic internet would have crashed the network, so Hart told them where the eText was stored (though without a hypertext link, because the web was still 20 years ahead). It was downloaded by six users.

In August 1989, Project Gutenberg completed its 10th book, The King James Bible, that was first published in 1611, with the standard text dated 1769. In 1990, there were 250,000 internet users, and the standard was 360 Kilobyte disks. In January 1991, Hart typed in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, published today in 1865. In July 1991, he typed in Peter Pan by James M. Barrie (published in 1904). These two worldwide classics of childhood literature each fitted on one disk.

By the early 1990s,Hart was coordinating the work of dozens of volunteers in what became an early (for the Web) example of Crowdsourcing.  With thousands of volunteers worldwide adding 85 completed eBooks per week in 2010 (up from 24 in 2001), Project Gutenberg today offers close to 40,000 eBooks in multiple languages. About 140,000 books are downloaded each day from

Hart (today): “40 years ago there was only one eBook on the Internet that you could download, and the operators were resistant to an additional eBook being added more than once a year, and it had to be a short one, given the space and bandwidth.”

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