As I approached the restaurant, I realized that the neighborhood looked familiar. It seemed to be deja vu. Soon, I recognized an office building that I passed at 5000 Arlington Centre Boulevard. It was the former location of CompuServe corporate headquarters. The building is now empty with a "Space Available" sign on the lawn.
I was inside that building many times in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, I was at CompuServe headquarters the day the company announced that parent company H&R Block had sold CompuServe to its biggest competitor, America Online. There were some long faces in the building that day!
The memories started flowing. I stopped to think how much the technologies have changed since I first started using home computers in the late 1970s and how much has changed since I started using CompuServe in 1984. Most of those computers used television sets as the monitor. I used to access CompuServe by using a 300-baud modem with "rubber cups." I had to pick up a normal telephone, dial the CompuServe access telephone number, wait until I heard the modem tones, and then place the handset in the "rubber cups" on the top of the modem.
In contrast, in 2010 I am able to access far more online information from a shirt-pocket-sized cell phone, using an “always on” Internet connection with no wired connection at all. I don't know the speed of the 3G wireless connection, but it certainly is much faster than 300 baud! I travel around guided by another shirt-pocket-sized device, a GPS. That technology wasn't available on my previous trips to Columbus.
Rest in peace, CompuServe.I first started installing and repairing mainframe computers in the mid-1960s but didn't start researching my family tree until about ten years later. My first "genealogy database" was recorded in my employer's mainframe computers. I didn't have an opportunity to go online and compare notes with other genealogists until the early 1980s. Of course, online genealogy databases were unheard of in those days.
Online genealogy got its start in the message boards, or forums, simultaneously on commercial services as well as on FidoNet and UseNet. Although quite different from each other, FidoNet and UseNet evolved as separate systems at about the same time. Duke University graduate students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived the idea of UseNet in 1979 and established the first online UseNet system in 1980. Usenet was a communications system installed on college and some commercial mainframe computers that were tied together via the Internet. Keep in mind this was more than ten years before the invention of the World Wide Web.
NOTE: Many people do not realize that the Internet and the World Wide Web are not the same thing. The Internet was invented first, in the 1970s. The World Wide Web was invented in 1993 as a service that runs on the Internet. The World Wide Web (WWW) is a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet. English engineer and computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal in March 1989 for what would eventually become the World Wide Web. By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee had built all the tools necessary for a working Web. On August 6, 1991, he posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup and made it available to others. However, a functional "Web" requires multiple computers. The second computer in the "Web" did not become available until December 1992. On April 30, 1993, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) announced that the World Wide Web would be free to anyone, with no fees due. Some accounts claim that the World Wide Web was born on August 6, 1991, and other accounts claim December of 1992, while still other accounts use the date of the CERN announcement: April 30, 1993.UseNet soon became popular in the early 1980s amongst college students and many employees of companies that had Internet-connected computers. Thousands of people became active on UseNet message boards. However, UseNet required access to mainframe computers, which was an impediment for many.
UseNet message boards are more popular today than ever before with most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) now hosting local copies of UseNet message boards. You can access genealogy UseNet groups at alt.genealogy, soc.genealogy.computing, soc.genealogy.britain, soc.genealogy.surnames.usa, alt.hipclone.genealogy.jewish, and elsewhere. You can find more information about today's UseNet groups at http://www.newsdemon.com/genealogy_newsgroups.php
FidoNet was originally founded as a non-commercial affiliation of independent PCs in 1984 by Tom Jennings of San Francisco, California, as a means to network independent dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) that used his own "Fido" BBS software. Each BBS ran on a single PC, typically installed in someone's home as a hobby. The BBSs were more "democratic" than UseNet. That is, they were available to anyone who owned a home computer and a modem. You didn't need a mainframe user name and password in order to use FidoNet. Many BBSs were available free of charge while a few charged fees for access.
Most BBSs had one telephone line connected. You dialed the number and, if someone else was already using the BBS's single phone line, you received a busy signal. Then you waited and waited until the other user finished. A few commercial systems did use as many as eight or even 16 phone lines. The World Wide Web had not yet been invented, and even the Internet was in its infancy and was not used by the majority of dial-up BBSs.
The FidoNet Bulletin Board Systems usually contained multiple message boards, or “forums,” with topics typically based upon the BBS owner's interests. Local users could read messages and post new messages as they wished. Users could also send and receive email messages to each other outside of the forums (public message boards).
During the early morning hours, FidoNet systems would dial out, connect to other FidoNet systems, and exchange email messages and forum messages. While crude by today's standards, the system worked quite well. For instance, a genealogist on the East Coast might enter a "looking for the parents of..." message on Monday; the message would travel over the next few days through the affiliated network of genealogy-specific FidoNet systems; a user on the West Coast might answer the query on Thursday; and the reply would travel back to the originating system over the next few days, arriving by Sunday or Monday.
Later versions of FidoNet improved the speed of delivery.
The FidoNet genealogy message boards were active through the mid 1980s and into the 1990s, often featuring messages by Richard Pence, Don Wilson, Howard Nurse, and others. In fact, if you were active on FidoNet in the mid 1980s, you may have seen occasional messages from me.
At the same time that UseNet and FidoNet were becoming established, several commercial companies saw an opportunity in providing online services to individuals. Early players included CompuServe, The Source, Genie, Prodigy, and a quirky service called QuantumLink.
NOTE: QuantumLink was a dedicated online service only for use with Commodore 64 and 128 computers. Its user interface featured low resolution video, and its initial services were limited. I looked at QuantumLink around 1985 and said to myself, "This online service won't ever amount to anything; it's too limited." However, QuantumLink soon expanded its services, opened up its service to other brands of computers, and changed its name to America OnLine. So much for my prognostications!I believe that Genie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) was the first commercial online service to successfully offer an online genealogy forum, starting around 1985. The Genealogy RoundTable was managed by Rhonda McClure for several years. Genie was a wholly-owned subsidiary of General Electric. The company had built a financially-successful online network by selling stock market and other information to other companies. However, most of the usage of this network was done during normal business hours. The network was almost idle during nights and weekends. General Electric decided to offer online services to consumers with two-tier pricing: very expensive during business hours but at the bargain price of $5 per hour nights and weekends. Prices later dropped to $4.95/month for a set of "unlimited use" features, but other services cost extra. Access was initially available at 300 baud although "high speed" 1200 baud connections soon became available. Higher speeds became available as modem technology improved.
In 1994, GEnie claimed around 350,000 users. The service closed on December 30, 1999, without finding a buyer.
The Source was a commercial network started in 1979 and owned by Readers Digest. It had a similar business plan to Genie, offering services to businesses during the day at higher prices and to consumers nights and weekends. The Source was a popular business service although I do not recall a genealogy service ever being started on The Source. Readers Digest sold The Source to competitor CompuServe in 1989. CompuServe then dismantled The Source.
CompuServe was founded in 1969 as Compu-Serv Network, Inc. although its networking servcie was originally called MicroNet. CompuServe was one of many computer timeshare services of the 1970s, initially running on a single dial-up line in Cleveland connected to a DEC PDP-8 computer. The system soon grew into a network of PDP-8 and PDP-11 computers, eventually replaced by DEC PDP-10 systems. The PDP-10 was the machine that made time-sharing common. The CompuServe dial-up network also expanded to become one of the largest such networks in the world. When I was an active CompuServe user, I was able to dial into local CompuServe numbers when I traveled to London, Rotterdam, Hong Kong, and Aruba.
CompuServe originally was a subsidiary of Golden United Life Insurance, then was acquired by H&R Block for $20 million dollars. H&R Block used CompuServe's network and mainframes to transfer income tax information and stock market information during business hours, then to provide consumer computer services during nights and weekends.
By the late 1980s CompuServe was the largest commercial online service, offering a variety of services. In 1987 I sent a business proposal to CompuServe to start an online genealogy forum with myself as Forum Manager. After some negotiations, CompuServe's Genealogy Forum went live on April 7, 1988.
In my proposal, I had predicted that we would receive 200 visitors a week or so in a genealogy offering on CompuServe. I was wrong. We received more than 2,000 visitors the first day, and the numbers increased daily after that for several years, peaking in 1996. At one time, the Genealogy Forum on CompuServe had 60,000 visitors per day with a total visitor database of nearly 150,000 users. The CompuServe Genealogy Forum provided message boards, text files, and even downloadable programs for IBM, Apple, Commodore, Amiga, TRS-80, and other computers.
The CompuServe Genealogy Forum flourished for several years until competition from the Internet, specifically the World Wide Web, as well as competition from AOL, Genie and others began to take their toll.
When I started with CompuServe as a user in 1985, the hourly charge was $18/hour during business hours but fell to "only" $12.50/hour nights and weekends. Competitive forces kept driving those prices lower and lower, ending at $1.95 an hour in 1995. America OnLine (AOL), however, introduced a far cheaper flat-rate, unlimited-time, advertisement-supported price plan in the U.S. to compete with CompuServe's hourly charges. This caused a significant loss of customers until CompuServe responded with a similar plan of its own at $24.95 per month in late 1997.
In 1998, CompuServe was sold to AOL for $1.2 billion. That was a lucrative deal for H&R Block, which had only paid $20 million for the company eighteen years earlier. AOL has continued to operate CompuServe as a separate, but shrinking service. A newer version of CompuServe, known as CompuServe 2000, is still in operation. The Genealogy Forum on CompuServe is now operated by Betty Clay and is available at http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=start&webtag=ws-genealogy
You can access CompuServe 2000 at http://webcenters.netscape.compuserve.com/menu/
AOL has had a long and somewhat erratic history. After all, who hasn't heard of AOL? Originally called QuantumLink, the online service was renamed to America Online and floppy disks containing sign-up kits were mailed to nearly every household in America. The floppies were later replaced by CD-ROM disks, and thousands of jokes sprung forth about the AOL CDs. George Ferguson emerged as the Genealogy Forum Manager on AOL and ran a successful service there for many years.
At one time AOL claimed several million members. However, the bookkeeping was a bit flawed, and AOL executives eventually admitted that former customers were still claimed as “users” for a year or more after canceling their accounts. Internally, previous customers were referred to as “inactive users” and were still counted.
In recent years, AOL has suffered from a decline in customers and the "dot-com bust" of the early twenty-first century. Like most other commercial online services, AOL was unable to match the rapidly-expanding World Wide Web. Parent company Time-Warner spun AOL off as a separate independent company in 2009. AOL still operates with many customers today but is not nearly as big as it once was. You can access AOL today at http://www.aol.com.
Numerous other commercial online services have appeared and disappeared, although not all of them offered genealogy services.
Delphi was the first commercial service to offer Internet access to consumers, with FTP, Telnet, Usenet, text-based Web access (November 1992), MUDs, Finger, and Gopher. While it was possible to access genealogy UseNet message boards on the Internet through Delphi, I do not remember any genealogy services ever hosted on Delphi itself.
Prodigy Communications Corporation was an online service that offered its subscribers access to a broad range of networked services, including an active genealogy section. Prodigy was founded on February 13, 1984, as Trintex, a joint venture between CBS, computer manufacturer IBM, and retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company. The new online service gathered very few customers until the name was changed to Prodigy in 1988 and an aggressive advertising campaign was begun. At its peak, Prodigy claimed 465,000 subscribers.
Prodigy then slowly faded away. Senior executives were replaced two or three times in an effort to turn the company around, but with little success. Today, accessing the domain www.prodigy.net redirects to my.att.net, which appears to be a Yahoo!-based content and search portal linking mostly to other online services.
And who can ever forget Wow!? Well, it seems that lots of people forgot it. In 1996, CompuServe felt the need to face lower-cost competitors by introducing a second online service to be called Wow! Wow! was the first online service to be offered with a monthly "unlimited" rate ($17.95), and stood out because of its brightly colored, seemingly hand-drawn pages. The Wow! service would also implement a parental control technology so that parents could limit and monitor the online activities of their children. Wow! was marketed primarily as a family-friendly service: easy for anyone to use and a place where parents could feel safe allowing their children to surf online, even without parental supervision. Wow! only worked with Windows, which was still in its infancy with many users clinging to MS-DOS in those days. There was no Macintosh version.
A genealogy forum was implemented on Wow! with myself as forum manager. The best description I can think of for the Genealogy Forum on Wow! is "sleepy." Nothing much ever happened there.
WOW! was never successful. CompuServe's traditional customers were not enthusiastic about the new user interface. Competition from the new World Wide Web proved to be overpowering. CompuServe shut down the service on January 31, 1997, less than a year after it went online.
Other commercial providers began to suffer growth problems by the mid to late 1990s. The reasons can be summed up in three words: World Wide Web. By 1995 or so, the World Wide Web was in hypergrowth mode. The old-fashioned commercial providers stood like deer staring into headlights on the side of the Information Superhighway.
AOL performed better than most of its competitors, having a successful run into the early 2000s by integrating the Web into the other online offerings. However, by 2005, even this business model began to fall apart. AOL has since laid off most of its employees but is still an online service, offering only a fraction of the services it offered fifteen years ago.
All of these early online services were fun to use. They produced a camaraderie amongst users that is difficult to find amongst the millions of online genealogists today. Indeed, we were all pioneers. The online services of the eighties and nineties tended to be user-unfriendly by today's standards and were horribly expensive. They also taught us a lot about online communications and about genealogy. It was a great experience, and I am glad that I was around to participate.
When did you first go online? What computer hardware did you use?