It occurred to me that this month marks the 20th anniversary of the first time I ever accessed the Internet. Gather around, kids, and let’s return to a time when the Internet was just for nerds.
It’s the most disruptive technology of my lifetime and arguably the biggest since the discovery of electricity. It has put the entirety of human knowledge at your fingertips but in 1994? It wasn’t quite ready for mass consumption.
It was a simpler time. Ace of Base, Warren G, and Candlebox were tearing up the charts in August of 1994. A little TV show named Friends was still a month away from its debut. The year before, Wired magazine launched and it was there that I read about this thing called The Internet while a senior in high school. I was just about to start my freshman year at the University of Mississippi and through the summer I’d been working a couple of jobs on campus. As fall approached, I knew I wanted to see what the Internet was and since it was still just an abstract concept to me, I decided to check it out. I headed up to Powers Hall and signed up for an email account. In those days at Ole Miss, the default email account was on their VM/CMS system (vm.cc.olemiss.edu). I think that system was an IBM 3084-QXC mainframe. What’s a mainframe? A mainframe is a term Hollywood throws out in movies when they want to make an on-screen hacker sound cool (example: “He’s hacked into the mainframe!”) when in actuality it’s a large, expensive computer that’s usually tended to by people with AARP cards.
BRIEF DIGRESSION: See also this brief Hollywood “Hacker” supercut:
Where were we? Oh yes. Mainframes. How would you access such a system? You’d stroll into the 24-hour computer lab in Weir Hall and access a WYSE terminal. It looked like this:
The terminals functioned as a sort of TN3270 client. “What’s that?” you ask? For those of you who weren’t alive before Internet Explorer existed, this was a text only interface into an ancient IBM mainframe. You’d be greeted with a text only login page. Once you authenticated, you’d be presented with a text menu of very limited options. A page full of green text on a black background.
In those days, Mosaic was the only browser that existed and neither I or anyone I knew was really aware of its existence. I don’t think I even saw Mosaic until at least the fall of 1994 … maybe even as late as January of 1995. If you wanted to surf the web, you had to use something called gopher. Gopher was a hierarchical text-based menu for accessing web sites. It wasn’t quite as user-unfriendly as it sounds; you’d be given a list of destinations of other Gopher websites and would jump from link to link. This is what surfing the web looked like to me for the very first time:
The first time I logged in, the only site I knew of (thanks to Wired) was MTV’s website which was run by Adam Curry. Adam Curry was a VJ for MTV in the late 80’s and early 90’s. FUN FACT: In the early 1990’s, MTV still occasionally played these things called “music videos” and VJ’s would introduce them or talk about them. A book on MTV’s VJ’s exists if you weren’t alive then and don’t know what a VJ is.
You could bounce from site to site and not see much. I want to say that CNN had some Gopher presence that I visited but I cannot verify that. To say that there wasn’t much to do was an understatement. It was basically all text-based news and stories in a link of menus.
What else could you do? Like my nerdy forefathers, I quickly discovered Internet Relay Chat (or IRC for short)! This was our Facebook. Nerds at universities would log on to IRC (usually from labs) and talk to other losers at other universities in other labs. Pretty neat, huh? It was a huge time-suck and contributed to the downfall of GPA’s in many schools. Wait until you hear what our Twitter was in those days: .plan and .project files on our UNIX accounts! The account had access to email that was also entirely text based but at that point I literally had no one I could email because I knew no one who had an email account besides myself.
Going online at home
First, how would you get online in late 1994, early 1995? Before I talk about that, let me get this out of the way … yes, I know that bulletin board systems (BBS) existed but since I was in the middle of nowhere this was not an option for me. My folks wouldn’t allow me to get a modem and there was no local BBS that I was aware of. Plus, they weren’t exactly mainstream. So anyway …
In those days, no one had Internet access capabilities natively on their computer. Sure you could use AOL, CompuServe, or Prodigy we nerds didn’t. Windows 3.1 lacked the support by default so you’d have to load a program called Trumpet Winsock on your computer that provided TCP/IP connectivity. You’d take a 3.5″ floppy disk with you to a computer lab or the library where you could download it as that was the only way to get it if you had no connectivity on your home computer. I always hated floppy disks. They were essential in those days for moving data around because dial-up was glacial, wi-fi wasn’t available, and portable hard drives might as well have been made of gold they were so expensive.
It wasn’t until Windows 95 debuted in the fall of the following year that native Internet connectivity was introduced into a mainstream, consumer OS.
If I recall correctly, the first local-to-me Internet providers wouldn’t appear until 1995: TECLink (summer 95), EBI Communications (summer 1995), Water Valley Interchange (late summer 95). At Ole Miss, they had a 2400 baud modem bank you could dial into for text based access. Around March of 1995, Ole Miss’ campus dial-up known as Nexus went online with a whopping 24 lines of 14.4k (later 28.k) SLIP/PPP access for thousands of students! Needless to say it was totally saturated and completely inadequate for anyone who needed reliable access.
Everyone accessing to the Internet in those days was very familiar with this sound:
So how would you browse the web? You’d have to use Netscape Navigator which debuted in December of 1994. There was literally one browser you could use. Firefox? Check back in the fall of 2002. Safari? 2003. Chrome? 2008. The first version of Internet Explorer wouldn’t debut until the fall of 1995. For a brief while, Netscape was the only graphical Internet browser.
Still, in August of 1994, I had no graphical Internet browser. There really wasn’t much to do on the Internet in those days. Looking back, it was incredibly primitive but even in that state, it had potential. You could communicate with others far away in real time and even though IRC was forbidden on the university’s computers we still used it anyway. With Usenet, you could take part in discussions with strangers anywhere in the world even though most of those discussions were largely pointless arguments involving science-fiction. The Internet wouldn’t really gain mainstream prominence until the following year. You could tell it would evolve into something incredibly useful. Now, 20 years after that I can’t imagine not having access to the Internet.