12:29:12 gutenberg.org

The first ebook appeared in 1971. It was The Declaration of Independence that pioneer Michael S. Hart keyboarded on a mainframe so copies would be free to any user of a growing computer network. Hart's insight was networked computers can make endless copies of public domain books, as text files, for free.

Gutenberg.org, an all-volunteer organization, implements Hart's vision and has made steady strides toward digitally preserving out-of-copyright books.

[michael s. hart]My first encounter with gutenberg.org, more than 15 years ago, showed great promise. At my desktop, I could quickly download files for Great Books and much more. But Michael S. Hart's Plain Vanilla ASCII copy of the Illiad, for example, had drawbacks. I needed to be at a computer to read the ebook. Unlike the portability of a paperback book. But advantages? Obviously, I could have more books than I'd ever read and not pay a cent.

If gutenberg.org didn't set off a wave of early ebook adopters, it faithfully persisted in its mission, accomplishing something of value that has taken the passage of years for all to appreciate: Public domain works stored on electronic media for the first time. In its own way, gutenberg.org's work is as revolutionary as someone in the 1400s picking up a manuscript of an ancient Latin text, handlettered in ink, and setting it to type on the new Gutenberg printing press that brought forth affordable printed books in quantity.

Technology next brought us e-readers that were affordable, portable, and had bit-mapped displays for book pages that looked as familiar as typeset pages. Moreover, unlike a laptop, e-readers drain batteries over weeks, not hours.

Fortunately, gutenberg.org's trove of 38,000 public-domain Plain Vanilla ASCII text files was perfectly positioned for automated conversion to new ebook formats. Why? Because e-books are built around text files that "flow" with minimal formatting. "Prettiness" can always be added in the conversion.

Sadly, Michael S. Hart died September 2011, but had to know he made a difference in the world. The next few years can only add to the impact of Hart's 40-year-old ebook creation.

Gutenberg.org titles I've read recently include The Empire of Russia by John Abbott (1,500 years of history of that great land), published in 1859; and, currently, Zen Culture  by Thomas Hoover (a 1977 publication, now in public domain). Next, I plan to tackle Lucretius' (c. 99-55 B.C.) splendid On The Nature of Things. Thanks, Michael S. Hart!

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The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

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