Dialup memories

April 30 marked the twentieth anniversary of CERN making the world wide web and its protocols public domain.

What’s often forgotten now is that the web was only one of the protocols around, there were alternatives, such as gopher, that were versy good at sharing text based pages. At the place I worked at the time, we’d developed our own text based information server that ran on a MicroVax under VMS. We did port it to Unix, discovered that the rest of the world had beaten us to it, and had moved to using gopher to deliver information pages.

And like the web, gopher was a network of sites – I remember the thrill of connecting to a server in South Africa, and seeing the weather in Pretoria.

I also remember building a slackware linux webserver that ran on an old pc under my desk as part of an exercise to convince management that implementing a web server needn’t be a very expensive exercise – at the time they were in the mindset of things requiring expensive bespoke hardware from SGI DEC or Sun and equally expensive licenses.

This wan’t the first time I’d encountered the internet, working in a University, I’d encountered it in it’s early text only days. In fact one of my now totally useless skills was being able to write incredibly complex commands to get files transferred through various gateways from various proprietary networks to our Vax system which used the now defunct coloured books set of network protocols (plus a bit of DECNet). Initially the internet was just like dealing with another network. It was just something that the Americans and our computer science department used.

In a sens the first half of my career was backgrounded by the developing internet – so much so that the first WoW memory I have is not seeing or using the web for the first time but the first time I had a modem at home.

At the end of the eighties modems were expensive exotic things, but various manufacturers started producing fax modems to allow you to send faxes direct from your computer – at the time as no one had email or text messaging it was the quickest way to send a message – faster than the post, especially for international messages.

These fax modems came with the ability to also allow you to run a terminal session to a remote host – no encapuslated TCP/IP, just straight characters sent over the wire in a good old serial connection.

I was living in the UK at the time and official government telecommunications authority approved modems were, expensive and clunky. However I’d heard about these sexy modems from a company in California called Global Village that made matchbox size ones for a Mac.

I faxed the company for details and then faxed an order with my credit card details – again something very unusual at the time – overseas purchases being a rare and special thing – and a few days later a fedex package arrived with my modem.

I plugged it in to my Mac at home and the phone line and sent a test fax to work that seemed to work – all the whistling seemed about right, so I then tried the terminal software. I had an immediate problem that I didn’t have anyone to connect to but Global Village had provided a list of test numbers you could dial and I remember dialing a server in Boulder, Colarado that typed out the time and then disconnected and he absolute wow of seeing a machine echo back the time in Boulder.

Later we got a dial up server at work and I would frequently type up notes with a text editor on my mac and then cut and paste them into a remote editor session, save them on the vax and email them on – remarkably similar to the process I go through with notes in markdown format created on my tablet today.

I also got myself a compuserve account – no dial up internet then and had the fun – not quite the word – of hand typing commands into the local X400 gateway via a terminal session to connect to compuserve, which was another obscure and now thankfully dead art.

Later, like everyone else I had dialup internet at home and the joy of listening to the modems negotiate or not – but by then the internet had happened and had its 15 minutes of fame, and nothing has quite had the wow of that first terminal session.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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