Yesterday, July 4, 2011, the digital book community celebrated the 40th anniversary of the eBook. According to most accounts, July 4, 1971 is the date Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart first digitized the US Declaration of Independence.

But, as I was researching the anniversary, I came across an interesting tidbit from a 2010 LA times article:

Hart began transcribing and scanning books on July 4, 1971 — “technically July 5,” Hart corrected himself in an e-mail; “it was all night.”

So, which is it? July 4? Or July 5? To clear up the confusion, I emailed Michael Hart directly. His response:

Here’s how it happened:

I was at the Fourth of July fireworks at 9PM.

I probably left there close to 10PM.

Let’s say it took over half an hour of walking, stopping for a few minutes at a grocery store a few block short of getting to the computer.

Say I got to the computer building around 11PM. It took me a while to get in, not sure how long, it was late and I didn’t have a key. As soon as I got in I learned that my personal, as opposed to an operator’s account I was using, was not only ready, but that they had already put a HUGE amount of “computer play money” in it, for me to use on anything I wanted, and that they were ready to put more in when I used it all up. I ran all my life without using that much on my own.

So, I sat down to think about what I could do to be worthy of what they had given me. . . .

I realized I was low on energy so I poured out the contents of my book bag on the floor to get brownie mix for some instant energy so I could think enough to come up with a good project.

Along with the brownie mix, etc., came one of those faux parchment Declaration of Independence copies they were handing out all over and putting on walls of every school and mall in the U.S. in preparation for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations.

At that moment the light went on over my head, just like in the comics, and Project Gutenberg was born.

I read the document to make sure I COULD actually read the handwritten transcript, which I could, and was ready to enter it into the computer.

The operator on duty decided I should enter it on “paper tape” from a TeleType machine, and then it could be read into magnetic tape and be available in a minute whenever anyone asked for it.

Somewhere in those last couple paragraphis I felt that this was a momentous occasion and that I had to note the time when I actually realized a power of what I was doing would change the world.

At that moment it was 1:41AM.

It took all night to type the all in and correct typos, work out punctuation, etc, and I just got done in time to be LATE to my 8AM class and then handed the roll of paper tape to a day operator, who was just coming on duty.

The first count I heard, in that first day maybe overnight, was that six people downloaded it.

That is pretty much the Project Gutenberg start, from beginning to end.