Back in 1971 the computer was barely understood by the average person and the concept of an ebook didn’t yet exist, but when Michael Stern Hart, a technologist and futurist, was given access to the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the University of Illinois that changed forever. Hart was inspired by a free printed copy of the Declaration of Independence he had recently picked-up and decided to type the text into the computer.
In an interview in 2002 he explained:
We were just coming up on the American Bicentennial and they put faux parchment historical documents in with the groceries. So, as I fumbled through my backpack for something to eat, I found the US Declaration of Independence and had a lightbulb moment.
Hart completed the groundbreaking project on July 4, 1971, and made the file available to other users of the computer network, with an annotation that it was free to use and distribute. This was the unintended beginning of the beloved Project Gutenberg, the first project to make books freely available in digital format.
For the next two decades, Hart created nearly all of the Project Gutenberg ebooks himself. By 1993 there were just 100 books in the Project Gutenberg. Today the catalog offers over 50,000 titles, all input by volunteers and free to use. The first ebook in the world – The Declaration of Independence – Project Gutenberg’s ebook #1, is still available for download right now: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1.