Did you know that although tin cans were invented in the 1810, the can opener wasn’t invented until 1855? If you’re reading this on an iPad or a Kindle, you may be surprised to learn that e-books have a similar history—they predate e-book readers by more than 30 years.
Michael Hart was a college freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the summer of 1971. He was a lifelong tinkerer, the kind of person who even as a seven-year-old had been skilled enough to take apart his parents’ TVs and radios to see how they worked…and then put them back together again.
That summer, two college friends managed to get him an account on a machine that was more complicated than anything he’d ever tinkered with before: a Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer, part of the university’s Materials Research Lab. It was unlike most computers of the era in that instead of being an island unto itself, it was linked to about 100 other university and military computers around the country. They were part of a network called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the predecessor of the Internet.
Hart got his first chance to try the mainframe on July 4 of that year. Most users spent their computer time writing programs, but Hart was so awestruck by the opportunity that for once he decided not to tinker. Reason: He figured any program he wrote would soon be obsolete, and he wanted to create something more enduring. But what?
He got his answer when he reached into his backpack for something to eat. Beside the snacks, inside his bag was a commemorative copy of the Declaration of Independence, something his supermarket was giving away as a Fourth of July promotion. “I had a ‘lightbulb moment,’ ” he recounted in a 2002 interview. “I thought for a while to see if I could figure out anything I could do with the computer that would be more important than typing in the Declaration of Independence, something that would still be there 100 years later—but I couldn’t come up with anything.” So he typed the entire document, all 1,458 words of it, into the mainframe by hand.
For anyone who wasn’t a computer programmer in the early 1970s, it might be difficult to understand just how primitive even state-of-the-art supercomputers were in those days. The Xerox Sigma V mainframe cost $300,000 (for that you got a 3 megabyte hard drive) and filled an entire room. But it didn’t have a computer screen or a keyboard. Hart had to do his typing on another machine—called a teletype—which was developed to send typewritten messages across telegraph lines, so that telegraph operators wouldn’t have to learn Morse code. The teletype machine converted the text into computer code by punching holes into a paper ribbon, which Hart then fed into the mainframe. AND BECAUSE COMPUTERS IN THOSE DAYS WEREN’T SOPHISTICATED ENOUGH TO RECOGNIZE LOWERCASE LETTERS, HART HAD TO TYPE THE ENTIRE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE IN UPPERCASE LETTERS.
When he was finished, the document was 5 kilobytes big (about a sixth the size of a one-page blank document created in Microsoft Word today). He planned to send a copy to every user in the network, but a colleague warned him that sending a document that large would crash the entire ARPANET. So Hart posted a notice letting the other users know where his electronic version of the Declaration of Independence (or “e-book,” as he called it) was stored in the system, in case anyone wanted to access it. Six users did.
It had taken quite a bit of work to type the Declaration of Independence into the mainframe, but once the work was done, Hart figured that his e-book version would remain available for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come. It was entered using a simple code called ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), which could be understood by more than 99 percent of all computers, even in 1971. Nearly half a century later, ASCII files can still be read by more than 99 percent of all computers, making ASCII more compatible than any other coding system ever created. Far from being obsolete, Hart’s original e-book of the Declaration of Independence is as readable by modern computers as it was by old computers, THOUGH IT HAS SINCE BEEN RETYPED IN UPPER- AND LOWERCASE LETTERS TO MAKE IT EASIER TO READ.
Why stop with just one e-book? In 1972, Hart typed up an e-book version of the Bill of Rights. For…
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