Reflections on the internet’s past

By April Froncek 

Earlier this year, as part of the Internet Society’s 25th anniversary celebration, we asked you to share your memories of the early Internet. As we look forward to the new year, it’s fun to read through the stories and look back at where we started.

One of the earliest memories was from Stanford University.

I got my first Arpanet email account in 1978.

[By 1985] All the graduate students and professors had accounts, and there was a campus Ethernet, Macs were being integrated into the network via AppleTalk (print and file sharing services)… Also, beyond email we had ftp servers that served shareware and USENET to help with sysadmin problems. Much of the networking software and hardware was developed on campus, including the AppleTalk gateways (Kinetics) and routers (early Cisco protoypes).

There was also this dose of funny reality from nearly ten thousand kilometers away, in Moscow:

I had remote data connection more than 26 years ago, in 1991. We had so called dial up modem connection via telephone PSTN pre-analogue PBX- the step-by-step switch.

It was toooooo extremely long.

Another member shared this memory from INET ’93 San Francisco:

…among the papers and presentations one which drew the largest crowd was the presentation on the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee et al. This was the first large scale demonstration of WWW anywhere I believe and prior to its rapid adoption. It drew the biggest crowd – and I do remember a number of comments that it would never take off because it was too slow!

At about the same time – and in spite of the slow speed – early web documentation was undertaken.

I created a “Navigating the Internet” course book… I specifically remember the one page I had on what we would come to call simply the “Web”. It talked about how you had to telnet to and then could navigate around the screen by pressing the number that appeared next to each “link”… I had a small screenshot of what the screen looked like.

But a connected world was much more than novelty. For those in remote regions, it was an affordable way to connect to others – and offered a glimpse into how this emerging technology could transform communities.

1996. This new fangled thing called electronic mail. That island was Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, a place you’ve never heard of. The email service was run out of the corner office of an electrical store, with the ESP (Email Service Provider) making an overseas call to the nearest ISP, in New Zealand 3,100 kilometres to the south west. Oh, how we looked forward to that once-a-day upload and download of email packets!

Cook Islanders were early adopters, getting email services months, years ahead of family and friends in New Zealand, our closest trading and cultural partner. Not so much because we loved technology, especially, more because faxes were a minimum of US $2 a page, at a time when people barely earnt that an hour. Phone calls overseas cost that much a minute, and more. By comparison, a 20 cent charge per email was an absolute bargain.

A member from Cameroon shared the exuberant, “I still remember my first PING!”

I began using the Internet in 2000 and I was very intrigued by the email system and the Web… I remember spending half of my allowance in cyber cafés, checking out all I could on the Internet.

I never stopped learning online!

Want to learn more about the early days of the Internet? Explore the Internet Society’s History of the Internet.

In 2016, the Internet Society launched an initiative to identify the uncertainties and factors that will shape the future of the Internet. Explore the 2017 Internet Society Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future.

(April Froncek is Managing Editor of ISOC blog where this post was first published)

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