E-books have been around long before Kindles, and that was thanks to Michael Stern Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg and the father of the e-book. Sadly, he was found dead Tuesday in his home at the age of 64. The cause of death is still being determined, but he'd been in declining health for some time.

Project Gutenberg is one of the widest and oldest collections of free electronic public domain literature on the internet, with over 30,000 books in dozens of languages, but it all started in 1971 when Hart typed a copy of the Declaration of Independence into the University of Illinois mainframe computer in 1971. Soon after, he moved on to the Bill of Rights, the Bible, and Shakespeare. Today, a wide range of volunteers all around the world add books to the site, which now allows readers to download to their favorite e-reader devices, or even order free CDs and DVDs.

Hart was an intellectual and a dogged futurist with a passionate belief that the technologies of tomorrow could change the world through the spreading of ideas and information, and that the best way to achieve his goal was through open access to the written word. Frequently the recipient of criticism from his academic peers and the publishing industry, Hart remained steadfast in his vision to bring free literature to the masses. Not long before his death, Hart was quoted as saying, “One thing about eBooks that most people haven't thought much is that eBooks are the very first thing that we're all able to have as much as we want other than air. Think about that for a moment and you realize we are in the right job."

If you're the owner of an e-reader or, like me and thousands of other writers, have based a career on publishing your own e-books, make sure Michael Hart receives a tip of your hat today. The imprint of his digital legacy has deepened more every year and is sure to continue long into the future.

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