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April 04 , 2011

40 years / 40 años / 40 ans


As recalled by Michael Hart in January 2009 in an email interview: “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.”

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Michael keyed in The United States Declaration of Independence to the mainframe he was using, in upper case, because there was no lower case yet. The file was 5 K. To send a 5 K file to the 100 users of the pre- internet of the time would have crashed the network, so Michael mentioned where the etext was stored - though without a hypertext link, because the web was still 20 years ahead. It was downloaded by six users. Project Gutenberg was born.

Michael decided to use the huge amount of computer time he had been given to search the literary works that were stored in libraries, and to digitize these works. A book would become a continuous text file instead of a set of pages. Project Gutenberg’s mission would be the following: to put at everyone’s disposal, in electronic versions, as many literary works as possible for free.

After keying in The United States Declaration of Independence (signed on July 4, 1776) in 1971, Michael typed in a longer text, The United States Bill of Rights, in 1972, i.e. the first ten amendments added in 1789 to the Constitution (dated 1787) and defining the individual rights of the citizens and the distinct powers of the federal government and the States. A volunteer typed in The United States Constitution in 1973.

From one year to the next, disk space was getting larger, by the standards of the time – there was no hard disk yet -, making it possible to store larger files.

Volunteers began typing in The Bible, with one individual book at a time, and a file for each book.

Michael typed in the collected works of Shakespeare, with volunteers, one play at a time, and a file for each play. This edition of Shakespeare was never released, unfortunately, due to changes in copyright law. Shakespeare’s works belong to public domain, but comments and notes may be copyrighted, depending on the publication date. Other editions of Shakespeare from public domain were released a few years later.

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