john-milton-paradise-lost-cover-1wyeqzuOn Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody takes a look at the interesting case of why Project Gutenberg has two copies of Milton’s Paradise Lost that were produced within a few months of each other. Project Gutenberg EBook #20, October 1991, was hand-typed by volunteer Judy Boss (who subsequently got a scanner).

However, Project Gutenberg EBook #26, from February 1992, was a revision of, literally, the oldest etext known to Project Gutenberg. It pre-dates Hart’s famous decision to type the Declaration of Independence by a good six years, dating back to 1964-1965 and originally rendered in all capital letters by Dr. Joseph Raben of Queens College, New York.

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).

How much work that must have taken! Carmody compares it to the work of Latin copyist monks—entering a text slowly and obscurely, for the recognition of just a handful of people. Even though Gutenberg had already rendered a perfectly serviceable copy of Paradise Lost a few years earlier, it is easy to see why why Michael Hart and his volunteers might have wanted to clean up and publish Dr. Raben’s version as well—keeping intact that connection going all the way back to the first known creation of an electronic text.

As Carmody points out, Michael Hart actually didn’t “invent” the e-book—someone else had done that first. But he certainly invented the e-book repository.


  1. The statement that the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost that I had encoded on punchcards in the early 1960s was “all capitals” is imprecise. We circumvented the shortcomings of that system by placing a dollar sign before every single capital and a double dollar sign before any word that was all caps. This anticipated the arrival of more sophisticated printing options, which did of course arrive in due time.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail