(at least) two different electronic editions of Paradise Lost on Project Gutenberg. The first, produced by Judy Boss and released in October 1991, was Project Gutenberg EBook #20. If you do an internet search for “project gutenberg paradise lost,” this is probably the edition you’ll find.
The second, Project Gutenberg EBook #26, was released in February 1992. This is a curiously short interval, particularly considering that there’d only been 25 ebooks encoded and released by Project Gutenberg in the 20+ years it had existed, and there are (when you stop to count them) many more books in the English language that were available. Even Milton fanatics would probably agree that this was a little early in a mass digitization project to start doubling up.
It turns out, though, that EBook #26 is special. In fact, it merits a special unsigned introduction by Project Gutenberg. By contrast, Boss’s 1991 edition doesn’t have an introduction. Instead, it has a totally charming disclaimer:
All persons concerned disclaim any and all reponsbility
that this etext is perfectly accurate. No pretenses in
any manner are made that this text should be thought of
as an authoritative edition in any respect.
This book was TYPED in by Judy Boss
firstname.lastname@example.org on Internet
eng003@unoma1 on Bitnet
(Judy now has a scanner)
Perfect, right? No authority, just a little signature of the scribe. “Judy made this.” Now she has a scanner.
Ebook #26 needs more context. Here’s the introduction:
This is the February 1992 Project Gutenberg release of:
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The oldest etext known to Project Gutenberg (ca. 1964-1965)
(If you know of any older ones, please let us know.)
Introduction (one page)
This etext was originally created in 1964-1965 according to Dr.
Joseph Raben of Queens College, NY, to whom it is attributed by
Project Gutenberg. We had heard of this etext for years but it
was not until 1991 that we actually managed to track it down to
a specific location, and then it took months to convince people
to let us have a copy, then more months for them actually to do
the copying and get it to us. Then another month to convert to
something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS. After
that is was only a matter of days to get it into this shape you
will see below. The original was, of course, in CAPS only, and
so were all the other etexts of the 60′s and early 70′s. Don’t
let anyone fool you into thinking any etext with both upper and
lower case is an original; all those original Project Gutenberg
etexts were also in upper case and were translated or rewritten
many times to get them into their current condition. They have
been worked on by many people throughout the world.
In the course of our searches for Professor Raben and his etext
we were never able to determine where copies were or which of a
variety of editions he may have used as a source. We did get a
little information here and there, but even after we received a
copy of the etext we were unwilling to release it without first
determining that it was in fact Public Domain and finding Raben
to verify this and get his permission. Interested enough, in a
totally unrelated action to our searches for him, the professor
subscribed to the Project Gutenberg listserver and we happened,
by accident, to notice his name. (We don’t really look at every
subscription request as the computers usually handle them.) The
etext was then properly identified, copyright analyzed, and the
current edition prepared.
To give you an estimation of the difference in the original and
what we have today: the original was probably entered on cards
commonly known at the time as “IBM cards” (Do Not Fold, Spindle
or Mutilate) and probably took in excess of 100,000 of them. A
single card could hold 80 characters (hence 80 characters is an
accepted standard for so many computer margins), and the entire
original edition we received in all caps was over 800,000 chars
in length, including line enumeration, symbols for caps and the
punctuation marks, etc., since they were not available keyboard
characters at the time (probably the keyboards operated at baud
rates of around 113, meaning the typists had to type slowly for
the keyboard to keep up).
This is the second version of Paradise Lost released by Project
Gutenberg. The first was released as our October, 1991 etext.
This is honest-to-goodness digital humanism, from start to finish. 113 baud keyboards. IBM punch cards. All caps and no punctuation — like a real Latin text! (In 1964, at least you had spaces between words and periods for the ends of sentences, I guess.) Tapping it out, in many hands, knowing that the number of people likely to even know what they’ve done is probably going to be limited to a handful.
Then in the early nineties, a new generation of digital humanists hears whispered rumors about this file and its editor. Then, after months of persuasion and conversion, “another month to convert to something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS.”
Meanwhile, the text itself has actually been recreated by a new editor/typist, working alone. But Project Gutenberg — probably Michael Hart himself — still recreates the text. To maintain that chain unbroken with the past.
When Michael Hart passed away in September, he was hailed as the “inventor of the ebook.” But Hart himself doubtlessly knew better.
He wasn’t the first to type a text into a computer. He didn’t even know who had been, if it was Joseph Raben and his typist(s) or someone else.
Hart didn’t invent the ebook. He invented something more: the place where these digital books and their editors’ names and stories could be preserved and shared. He invented a library; he invented an ark.