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2004.04.28 The State of the Internet: 1985-1993

posted Mar 26, 2010, 5:52 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Mar 26, 2010, 5:53 AM ]

Several years ago, I would have told you that I would never own or maintain a website. I was against the entire concept of websites. I would have told you that the World Wide Web was a passing fad that would never catch on. I would have told you that there were more important things to do with the internet.

As my friend Greg likes to point out, I'm old. Greg also likes to point out that I was using the internet before it was even called the internet. Starting in 1985 or 1986, I was dialing in and connecting to the local university's VAX/VMS mainframe using a 300 baud modem. It was also known as a 300 bps (bits per second) modem, because back then modems only encoded one bit per baud. It was slow, but sufficient to display the 40 column, 24 line screens of text information that made up a user interface back then. It was also slow enough that I could read along as it was being displayed. By the time it said "Press ENTER to continue" I'd already pressed ENTER and was reaching for a sandwich.

What did we do back then? Mostly, we'd send and receive email. You'd recognize it even today, though you'd laugh at the lack of extra features. My outgoing email still looks the same as it did back then. I tend to avoid fancy electronic stationery, background images, file attachments, etc. Back then, those weren't even options.

We also sent instant messages, though back then we called them interactive messages. They were sent with the SEND command (naturally) to one or more other users who were logged on at the time. Some genius came up with XYZZY which automated the process somewhat, and some other genius created central hubs where people could register, meet, divide off into rooms, etc.

You could send and receive files. You could encode them into email, though that was frowned upon. There was a variation of the SEND command that took care of files. If you wanted a file, you'd send an email to somebody asking for it, and they'd SEND it to you.

This process was also automated to a degree. You could send email to robots which automatically processed it, found the commands inside, and would SEND you the files you wanted. More often, it would send you a list of valid commands, and you had to figure out where you went wrong.

If you had enough people of similar interests, you could create an email discussion list. People joined by sending an email with the proper commands inside. Emails sent to the discussion list would be sent back out to everyone on that list.

The internet wasn't called the internet back then. Instead of the internet, we had a collection of independent nets that didn't share data easily. What we today call the internet is actually a collection of independent nets that do share data easily, but that's a topic for a future article. I was connected to a thing called BITnet.

BITnet short was Binary Information Transfer network or Because It's Time network or something like that. None of the people in my circle knew exactly what it meant and none of us knew who to ask. It connected mostly colleges and universities and research centers, officially for the sole purpose of furthering academic advancement.

I used it mostly to talk about Star Trek and arrange meetings with young women who were attracted to men who knew a lot about Star Trek. Those were the days.

BITnet was supposed to be used for academic purposes, but I never met anyone who actually used it for such. Some colleges gave all their students access as a matter of course. At my college, you had to take a class which used computers and then claim that you had no home computer to use. After they set you up with an account on the mainframe, you'd just dial in with that home computer you didn't have and check your email, send files, etc.

Oh, and occasionally you'd do those assignments that required a computer.

I also got hooked on a game called MORIA back then. One of the other students compiled the program and uploaded it to his filespace, then twiddled the permission bits so that other students could run it. Run it on that mainframe, but send the display over to my home computer. The Mines of Moria was a D&D-style game based loosely on Tolkien's Middle Earth books, with heavy emphasis on said Mines. The goal of the game was to fight your way down 50 or 100 levels of the mine and eventually kill the Balrog.

I couldn't play at first. It used an 80-column display, and I only had a 40-column display on my Atari 130XE. I was able to find a terminal program which faked 80 columns using a special font. It was just a tad hard to read. How hard? Well, for the first few months, I was wandering around the Mines of Moria collecting "magic hands." It was sometime later when I realized that they were actually "wands."

I eventually got an Atari 1040ST which had a true 80 column display, and enough housepower to handle my new 1200 bps modem. I could read easier, and also found that I could read faster than 1200 bps, too. It would not be until I picked up that 2400 bps (600 baud at 4 bps per baud) modem that I'd start falling behind.

I'd play Mines of Moria, I'd exchange files with my friends, I'd write articles on Star Trek and Atari computers, I'd even write some original fiction. All thanks to BITnet, now part of the internet.

Life was good, but then of course college ended and I had to get out into the real world. Back then, you couldn't just dial into the internet for $14.95 a month, especially if you didn't live in a major metropolitan area, which I most certainly didn't. Instead, it was closer to $50 a month and a long distance call to use Compuserve or Delphi or one or two competing services.

I tried signing up for one, I forget which. I quickly discovered that, in spite of what the salesperson told me, the local access number was not a local call. I also discovered that my local bank will honor requests for electronic fund transfers without my having authorized them to do so. They also don't let little things like my not having enough money in my account to cover the transaction stop them from putting it through.

Once that was cleared up, I honestly tried to make the best of the situation, writing an automated script which could log on, download my email, upload my replies, then log off. This cut down on my long distance charges, but no more instant messaging, and no more playing games online. I eventually gave up. I sent in an email to customer service requesting that my account be discontinued. I sent several, and then finally broke down and called by phone. Turns out that they don't accept requests for changes in service by their own email service because, get this, "email is not a reliable means for doing business, sir."

I ducked out of the internet scene.

During all this time, I'd been using a network called Fidonet. It got its start, and its name, from automated scripts that just went out to get the mail. Unlike BITnet or Compuserve, Fidonet was a collection of amatuer computer enthusiasts who provided mostly free access. It had email, files, and discussion groups. Plenty of local access, though some functions did require long distance calls, but rarely. I had connectivity with people, so I didn't feel too badly. I had also skipped the 9600 bps modems and gone straight to a 14.4 kbps modem, or 14400 bps. Life was good.

But by then the internet was being called the internet, and the World Wide Web had made its debut. Eventually, I'd have to get back into the game.

But that's a story for another day.