RIP Michael S. Hart

Remembering the founder of Project Gutenberg.

Michael Hart is dead. He was the founder of Project Gutenberg, and an incredible visionary for online books, and someone who touched my life. I was in email contact with him from 1990, when I got my first access to the Internet and found Project Gutenberg. I ran New Zealand mirror archives of Project Gutenberg texts, scanned and proofread books, and fell in with the write crowd, so to speak.

I made a trip to the US around 1993 or 94. It was a family trip to a bluegrass festival in Kentucky, but I asked Dad if we could tack on a few extra bits as we’d be “close by”. Those bits: a trip to Champagne-Illinois to meet Michael, and a trip to Rhode Island to meet a girl. “Close by” if you’re in NZ and looking at a map of the US and don’t pay much attention to scale. Dad drove us to Rhode Island and I got to meet the girl, but he said I’d have to do my geek stuff by myself.

So I flew into there somehow, and Michael picked me up and drove me around town. In Wellington, where I got my degree, the university sits on a hill above the town. In UIUC the town was built around the university! He showed me the divide between arts and science, made literal and laughable by the road that actually did divide the arts faculties on the left from science faculties on the right. We crossed the tracks, the actual tracks, to the bad side of town. He fed me American Pizza, and my clearest memory of the whole trip is watching him empty packets of sugar onto the top of his pizza. Something like that really sticks in one’s mind ….

Then we went back to his house, which I believe he had inherited from his academic family. In my memory it is huge, but I think that’s principally because it was full of books. I remember him as loving physical books as much as he loved digital books, but most of all I remember him as generous with his time. He took a lot of time out of his busy days to show this goober of a boy, 21 years old if that, around town. He can’t have got much back in conversational joy, as I wasn’t a particularly worldly chap, and I didn’t realize then what a lot of time I’d asked for and he’d given. He put me up in his house, I made my way back to the family the next day, and when I eventually built a life for myself in America (not with the lass from Rhode Island, however) I often thought of Michael but never made the time to follow up. I regret it now.

I learned a lot from Michael, though I don’t think he realized it at the time. I learned how hard it is to be a pioneer: doing work that others don’t value is thankless and marginalizing. I learned how hard it is when others eventually follow you: they don’t value what you’ve done nearly as much as they should, and they have lots of different ideas about the future than you do. I learned to be generous with my time. I learned that sugar on pizza is a taste it takes longer than one day to acquire. And, most importantly, I learned that people can and do make a life for themselves doing what they love.

RIP Michael.

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  • http://vatul.net/blog/ Maitri

    Sugar on deep dish, Chicago-style pizza is the only way I can eat it any more. Thanks for this wonderful post. It is amazing how many lives he touched and changed, including mine.

  • Becky

    Michael was an amazing man, and, though I never met him personally, his works touched me deeply. I now volunteer for both gutenberg and librivox, because through Michael and Hugh, Ive realized how important it is to save culture and knowledge through the accessibility of the internet.

  • http://evanprodromou.name/ Evan Prodromou

    “to to speak” => “so to speak”
    “Dad drive us” => “Dad drove us”

    Please delete this comment after correcting

  • http://worldlibrary.net John Guagliardo

    Nat,
    Thanks for the kind words about Mike. That is too funny you mentioned the sugar on his pizza thing. A couple years ago I went to lunch with him at a little Pizzeria in Haleiwa, Hawaii and he did that with me too. I was certain that he had just made that up while we were together. He had insisted that he had been doing that for years, but I didn’t believe him. So of course I had to take a picture of it and save it as my phone’s avatar for his number. For the last couple of years whenever he called, a photo of him eating a pizza covered in sugar displayed. I am sad to say, that is how I will always remember him, a man of infinite sweetness. (pizza photo)

    I will miss him dearly.

  • http://nathan.torkington.com/ Nat Torkington

    Thanks for the corrections, Evan. Michael would have been first to acknowledge the valuable role of proofreaders so I refuse to delete your comment and insist that you hold your head high! :)

  • Mark Zinzow

    I had the pleasure of quickly becoming a close friend of Michael’s back around 1987, and often worried about his health as we had lunch about once a week for decades, and esp. in the earlier years, he always put more sugar on pizza than I thought was healthy. We often ate at Garcia’s near campus, home of the flying tomato brothers, who Michael was also friends with. I remember once someone from another table at Uno’s in Champaign asked him if he was performing a chemistry experiment on his pizza.

    For many years when I was passing through Chicago, I would often stop at a Giordano’s (Downers Grove was his favorite) and bring him back a deep dish pizza, mushrooms, no garlic. I’m glad to have shared many pizzas with him.

    He had his eccentric quirks, but mostly I will remember the enthusiasm we shared for the hope that technology would benefit humanity on a great scale, and for sharing with friends.
    He always seemed so happy to be present, to share and connect.

    I’m so sad to loose him, and also happy for the years we were friends.

  • Liam

    Hi Nat

    One of my regrets is that I never got to meet Michael. I’ve been on mailing lists with him for something like 20 years, and now work for the organisation that hosts Project Gutenberg. Another sad reminder that life doesn’t wait for you to make time to do important thing.

    Cheers, Liam

  • http://simonasumanaru.blogspot.com/ Simona

    And lots of sugar on his omelette. He would cook that to perfection and enjoy it like a
    little kid. He was right, it did taste good. Actually he was right about a lot of things, but then again he was different than most. His brains and emotions would function at high speed and at times it was hard to keep the pace. That was his demanding side. To be the best you could be. Always. In reward, his giving side was infinite.

    Hi Maitri, hi John, hi Mark… hi Nat, you don´t know me… I´m one with a hole in my heart like all these people here.

  • http://www.prenhall.com/electronic_publishing/html/chapter9/09_4.html Sandy Ressler

    Although I never met Michael he was kind enough to answer questions about Project Gutenberg for my (out of print) book “The Art of Electronic Publishing” I think the case study itself is somewhat of a tribute…it’s available at:
    http://www.prenhall.com/electronic_publishing/html/chapter9/09_4.html

    He wasn’t only ahead of the curve, he built the curve.

    RIP

  • http://www.prenhall.com/electronic_publishing/html/chapter9/09_4.html Sandy Ressler

    Although I never met Michael he was kind enough to answer questions about Project Gutenberg for my (out of print) book “The Art of Electronic Publishing” I think the case study itself is somewhat of a tribute…it’s available at:
    http://www.prenhall.com/electronic_publishing/html/chapter9/09_4.html

    He wasn’t only ahead of the curve, he built the curve.

    RIP

  • http://www.prenhall.com/electronic_publishing/html/chapter9/09_4.html Sandy Ressler

    Although I never met Michael he was kind enough to answer questions about Project Gutenberg for my (out of print) book “The Art of Electronic Publishing” I think the case study itself is somewhat of a tribute…it’s available at:
    http://www.prenhall.com/electronic_publishing/html/chapter9/09_4.html

    He wasn’t only ahead of the curve, he built the curve.

    RIP

  • Mary Beth Wright-Zaba

    Here I am, an out of work academic librarian, back home in Houston and selling shoes part time at a shoe store for minimum wage for over 2 years now. I could not sleep, woke up and decided I needed to refresh my mind and my soul with something or someone who inspired me. That person was Michael S. Hart. I did a paper on him in graduate school and was not only impressed but fascinated and humbled by this man. So, I “google” Michael S. Hart, expecting to see the usual tags/results/hits… and I find that this wonderful and giving genius of a human being is gone. “sigh” Somehow, the world now seems a little colder and a little scarier knowing that Michael is gone. Of course I never knew him, but working at a small junior college in the middle of nowhere – with no budget at all – I was able to help students succeed because of the availability of the books that Michael put into Project Gutenberg. Farewell, Michael, and we thank you. RIP, your work is done, and will live for centuries – just like the library you wanted to build to “last for centuries” through your genius and your humility (requiring plain vanilla text, who else would have thought of it!).