20 years online

In 1994, Mark Zuckerberg was 10 years old.  The Google guys were still in university.  And at a computer fair in Calgary’s Stampede Park, the 14 year old version of me was working hard trying to convince my Dad why we should get on the Internet.

This wasn’t my first flirtation with the “information superhighway.”

Through the early 90s, I’d run the demo of Radio Shack’s primitive PC-Link online service on my Tandy computer, wishing I was connected to the rest of the world.  My parents, however, wouldn’t pay the freight.  There was no local access number, and besides – what could I find out there that I wouldn’t be able to see down at the local library?

My first "real" computer - A Tandy 2500 (or something like that.)  / Image source : http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/
My first “real” computer – A Tandy 2500 (or something like that.) / Image source : http://www.radioshackcatalogs.com/

When we bought our first computer with a modem in 1993, I tried dialling around to a number of free Calgary BBSes (bulletin board services for the young’uns), but I was stopped dead in my tracks when I realized many of them were filled with ASCII porn, risqué personal ads, and Dungeons and Dragons talk (well before I ever got hooked on strategy games.)

I’d later try hopping online with Compuserve.  Because our computer was a bit on the slow side, it was text-only Compuserve – but it presented a world full of information that was shiny and new to me.

After a few days online (and of reading the manual that came with the Compuserve disks outlining all the different services and the astronomical costs attached to them), I’d end up having nightmares of inadvertently accessing premium features or booking a plane ticket, in the process ringing up hundreds of dollars in charges on my Dad’s credit card.

While I never did ring up hundreds of dollars in Compuserve charges, I was enough of a worry wart that I convinced my Dad to pull the plug.  He thought it was funny I’d fret like that, but he agreed to shut down the account.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Thanks for the nightmares, Compuserve!
Thanks for the nightmares, Compuserve!

Then in the spring of 1994, I started reading about the Internet in various magazines.   I was intrigued at how – unlike Compuserve – everything was free.   All you had to do was find an Internet service provider, pay for a connection, and then “surf.”

However, in 1994, getting on the Internet wasn’t as simple as calling your local phone or cable company, and you couldn’t look under “I” in the Yellow Pages.  The ‘net was still primarily the domain of geeks, and ads for different service providers were typically only found in magazines – like the bible of Canadian computing, The Computer Paper.

And that takes me to the computer fair in Stampede Park.  I learned about it in the magazine, and begged Dad to take me.

There were Internet service providers at every turn in the convention centre – many with futuristic names which seemed to fit brave new digital era we were (about to be) living in.  

Nucleus!  

CADvision!  

Cybersurf!  

Some of the companies resorted to having busty models roam the show floor in skin-tight latex dresses, trying to lure horny (and lonely) geeks to their booth.  Others offered free food and drinks (which also can lure lonely and hungry geeks to a booth.)

Cybersurf Internet Access homepage, circa 1997
Cybersurf Internet Access homepage, circa 1997.  Sadly, the source (archive.org) doesn’t have a version from 1994.

My dad and I eventually ended up at the booth for a company called “Cybersurf Internet Access” (or CIA for short.)  While there might not have been half-naked women flanking their showfloor space, they did have a computer set up with a live connection to the net.  And my eyes were glued to the screen.

The CIA salesperson showed us some of the highlights of the web – how CBS had just set up a homepage where you could read David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists, how some newspapers were offering information online, and how you could do research for school papers.  I was hooked, and my Dad was convinced.

We bought a kit that day for CIA’s service – a package with about 300 hours which would have to last the year at a price tag of about $250.  I was excited.  My Mom, less so.  (“What did your father buy you now,” she asked – half-jokingly – when we got home.  I always liked Saturday shopping trips in the city with my Dad.)

What was unique about Cybersurf was that unlike all Internet providers I’d ever use after, CIA offered what they called a “Virtual T1” service.  Today, we’d call it a remote desktop connection – but at the time, it was revolutionary.

All your Internet applications lived on their end – web browsing, e-mail, Archie, Veronica, gopher, telnet … you name it, they had the apps installed and kept up to date.  All you had to do was dial in.

I miss the days of Gopher, Archie and Veronica.  But not their usability.
I miss the days of Gopher, Archie and Veronica. But not their usability. (Image source : http://www.ils.unc.edu/callee/gopherpaper.htm )

Because there were only so many hours of Internet for the year, I was always mindful of the clock.  Many days, spending an entire hour online seemed like an eternity.  Today, that can pass in the blink of an eye.

The Internet of 1994 was a distinctly different experience from today.  Web pages were primarily coded by hand – not generated by databases.  Dropping an e-mail to whoever was responsible for a website usually ended up netting you a new friend in the process.  And, admiration – not SEO – was the motive for linking to another’s online creation.  It was a very different time, and the content reflected that.

In my circle of friends, I was that kid – one of the first on the block to get Internet access.  When people would come over to hang out, the Internet was a mild distraction – but one that wouldn’t last for long before we’d head off to watch TV or otherwise get in trouble.

Our family ended up getting transferred from Calgary before we could use up all the hours we bought with CIA, and I’d move on to my second ISP (and one of my first jobs) with Harvest Moon Technologies in Yorkton.   But to this day, I still have fond memories of how quaint and special those early days were online.

I actually have a copy of this book in my collection.  I should post some excerpts one day - it's quite funny all these years later!
I actually have a copy of this book in my collection. I should post some excerpts one day – it’s quite funny all these years later! (Source : amazon.com)

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.  What are some of your early Internet memories?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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