Monday, September 12, 2011

We'll Miss You Michael Hart

By Michael Bowman

Michael S. Hart passed away on September 6, 2011. Hart invented ebooks, and founded Project Gutenberg. According to his obituary on the Project Gutenberg page,

"He had been granted access to significant computing power at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On July 4 1971, after being inspired by a free printed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, he decided to type the text into a computer, and to transmit it to other users on the computer network. From this beginning, the digitization and distribution of literature was to be Hart's life's work, spanning over 40 years." (

Project Gutenberg houses more than 36,000 ebooks in the public domain.  I have enjoyed a number of them.

Hart’s invention, in recent years, has transformed the publishing world, providing the reading public access to many new authors, and spurring new inventions such as the Nook, Kindle, iPad, and fostering new file formats for the display of written content (e.g., PDF, epub, lit, Mobipocket, Plucker, TealDoc, etc.). Could he have foreseen these subsequent innovations when he decide to post an electronic version of the Declaration of Independence?

Not to detract from Hart’s invention, there was someone else who did envision this technology prior to Hart.  Arthur C. Clarke, a polymath, author, and visionary. Perhaps like I did, you read Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie. Maybe you remember this passage:

"When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers ... Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. ... the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination. Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word "newspaper," of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites. It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg."

And in another episode of life imitating art imitating life imitating art...Samsung cited the 2001: A Space Odyssey Newspad as prior art in its ongoing patent war with Apple.  Attached hereto as Exhibit D is a true and correct copy of a still image taken from Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey." In a clip from that film lasting about one minute, two astronauts are eating and at the same time using personal tablet computers. The clip can be downloaded online at As with the design claimed by the D’889 Patent, the tablet disclosed in the clip has an overall rectangular shape with a dominant display screen, narrow borders, a predominately flat front surface, a flat back surface (which is evident because the tablets are lying flat on the table's surface), and a thin form factor.

Thank you, Michael Hart, and Arthur C. Clarke.

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