[By Nic Lindh on Saturday, 13 March 2004]
We’ve begun the HTML portion of my class, which starts out with a short lecture on the history of the Internet and a non-technical overview of how it works. This made me think back on how I first got on the Internet way back in the dark days of 1990, and what things were like back then. Thought I’d post some of those recollections up here, if for no other reason than to show the young whippersnappers how deep the snow was in those days and how it was uphill both to and from school, etc.
Back in 1990, a young, fresh-faced Nic is roaming the swamps of Louisiana. I take my first graphic design class, and the Mac Plus completely blows me away–I can make my own magazines on this thing! I can make books! An incredible quantum leap from the Atari 400/Commodore 64/Apple II days of yore. So I save up my starving student money and purchase a Mac Classic, max it out to a mighty 4 megs of RAM, and proceed to have an absolute blast with it, creating all kinds of interesting things, as well as churning out endless term papers.
And then I hear that if you buy a modem, you can connect to the university library from home. Whoa. And there’s all kinds of interesting software out there for you to download plus a huge message board where Interesting People talk about all kinds of Interesting Things.
Done. A modem it is. So I purchase a Hayes 2,400 Baud modem, head on over to the computer science department and tell them I want to get an account. The guy at the help desk says, “Sure. What kind of computer do you have?” I tell him I have a Mac and the light in his eyes flickers out, no doubt seeing endless hours wasted walking me through the simplest things. But nevertheless, I get an account and a copy of Kermit on a floppy I had prudently brought with me, as well as an introductory guide to the school’s computer system written by what seemed like a seriously disturbed nerd. It was thick, it was dense, it was incomprehensible.
But little things like that would not hold me back. First task: Getting my modem to connect with the school. The school at this time used 1,200 Baud modems. The procedure, as I remember it, went something like: Open up the modem preferences in Kermit. Randomly click around on a screenful of techno-gibberish without any kind of help function. (This was way before modem scripts made their way into the world.) If I’m not misremembering, it took about twenty or so hours of twiddling to get the modems to connect. But I was young, I was strong, I had an inexhaustible supply of determination and coffee.
Finally, success. Woohoo! A command prompt appears! I type, but nothing appears on screen. Aw, crap, there’s another preference dialog full of words like “duplex” and “TTY.” Fiddle settings on this screen, dial up, it doesn’t work, disconnect, fiddle settings some more, rinse, wash, repeat.
And then, I can dial up, get a command prompt, and actually see what I’m typing. We have liftoff.
Time to read Dr. Demento’s guide to the school’s computer system. Or at least try to. But it’s very little use. The author of this particular work of technical literature seems to have missed out on his true calling as a beat poet.
Time to just bang around and see what happens. There are three interesting things here, it seems: Usenet, the big bulletin board; FTP, where all the freeware lives; and my ostensible reason for doing all of this: the university library computer. Finally I can do all my research from the comforts of my own home sipping on a cold beverage instead of trudging to the library. Excellent.
There’s also something on there called “e-mail,” but I don’t know anybody who’s online, so “e-mail” can wait.
After a while I get comfortable with the command line and start to explore FTP. Apparently University of Michigan has a good archive of Mac software. Fire up FTP, log on to the umich site, and seriously, this is the closest I ever came to a religious experience: The first time the words “Connected to umich” came up on my screen, and I was interacting with a computer thousands of miles away from my bedroom. I remember sitting there, staring at that line of text, and thinking, “Wow. This changes everything.”
Since Macs use something called resource forks, which no other computer in the universe can understand, all files have to be encoded, and then decoded once you download them. The catch-22 here is that you can’t download the decoder software unless you have the decoder software. So the university computer store to the rescue. I figured somebody there must have the software. And they do. Software loaded and ready to go, it is time to download freeware. Which is a two-stage process: First FTP the software to my account on the university system, then use Kermit to download from there to my local computer. Over a 1,200 baud modem that tends to disconnect me every once in a while. But it’s doable.
Usenet back in 1990 was pretty amazing. Essentially there were two topics of discussion: Incredibly hardcore computer geekery, and Star Trek. And half the computers on the Internet were named Frodo and Gandalf. Seriously.
I honestly can’t say I miss those days of having to tweak everything for hours just to make the simplest things work, but in a way I guess it prepared me for Linux system administration…