Before there was a World Wide Web…

I had a home internet connection long before the majority of people had even heard of the internet. While my friends had to content themselves with a 2,400 bps connection to the likes of CompuServe, GEnie, or the nascent AOL, I had an almost 56,000 bps connection to the entire internet, right from my home. Even better, it cost me almost nothing (more accurately, was included in my tuition).

How I achieved this near-miracle of telecommunications is a strange tale in and of itself. I was a student at the University of California, and had internet access at a couple of terminals on campus. They were largely unused. I would surf around with Telnet and knew that I needed access to this resource from home.

I searched around and found that the best official way to connect to the internet from home was through a 64 kbps frame relay. The local phone company wanted thousands of dollars and months of lead time to set up the frame relay, and then I’d pay hundreds of dollars a month to connect to the net. It didn’t seem feasible.

The University maintained a modem pool so that people could Telnet in to University services like library searches (Melvyl) and the VA hospital computers. I prepared what I thought was a compelling argument for the University to implement the Serial Line Internet Protocol (SLIP) on their modems. At the time — as I lived logically close to campus — I could get nearly 56 kilobit speeds dialing into the pool with my high-end modem.

I had planned to spend some days working my way through people at the IT department to sell my idea. To my utter surprise, the first person I spoke to knew what I was talking about (!), told me it was already implemented (!!), and I could already access it without any special credentials (!!!). That’s right: the University was offering direct, dial-in internet connections for free to anyone with a modem.

This only worked because nobody knew what SLIP was, even fewer people had it available on their home computers (neither Windows nor the Macintosh had a native TCP stack and Linux did not yet exist), and most people wouldn’t have known what to do with an internet connection anyway.

That started to change with the release of the gopher protocol in 1991. Gopher was the bomb. It let you arrange online information in an outline format (I was heavy into outline-style user interfaces at the time) and it was extensible. I immediately began building gateways to Melvyl, MUMPS, Barnes and Noble (online with Telnet long before Amazon was even a dream). I felt like this text-only interface to the net was the be-all and end-all.

The school also built gopher interfaces for many of its online services. Soon, they started requiring login credentials to access the modem pool as more and more people started wanting access to the internet. Fortunately, my student login worked fine. The modem pool also started to get increasingly congested, and I got in the habit of calling first thing in the morning to download my email before things got busy. The habit of checking my email first thing in the morning is still with me.

Of course, in 1996 the World Wide Web, with pictures, blew gopher out of the water (though most early web browsers supported the gopher protocol as well) and any hope of the University maintaining an accessible modem pool went down the drain.


← previous|next →