The Genealogy World of Twenty Years Ago

This week I decided to take a trip down memory lane. I re-read the first 50 issues of this newsletter, all published in 1996. The genealogy world indeed has changed. Here are a few of the more memorable newsletter items from twenty years ago, along with a few comments:


Only the more advanced computer users in 1996 had state-of-the-art software: Microsoft’s latest operating system, called Windows 95. However, because I was now writing a “techie” newsletter, I purchased a very high-speed system (a 90-Mhz Pentium I) with a huge amount of memory (32 megabytes) so that I could use the latest professional operating system from Microsoft: Windows NT 3.51. During the year, Microsoft also released Internet Explorer version 3.0. Most of the 30 million users of the World Wide Web used Netscape, however. A few used the older Mosaic web browser.

The annual GENTECH conference was held in Plano, Texas, with several hundred attendees.

While at the GENTECH conference, I first saw a GPS unit designed for use by consumers. I saved up my money and purchased my own GPS later in the year. GPS devices certainly have become much more popular in the past twenty years!

The National Genealogical Society held its annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society announced a new online presence on a section of CompuServe. This apparently was the first major genealogy society to serve members online. Things have certainly changed since then!

The New England Historic Genealogical Society held its annual summer conference in Farmington, Connecticut. The luncheon speaker was Dick Eastman, speaking on “The Future of On-Line Computer Communications for Genealogists.” Yes, I was talking about the future, even back in those days. Luckily, nobody recorded that speech and saved it for use in present-day comparisons!

Family Tree Maker version 3.0 by Broderbund added the capability to read genealogy data CD-ROMs produced by a company that Broderbund had recently acquired: Banner Blue.

A previously unheard-of company called Progeny Software introduced their first genealogy product: PAF*Mate.

Bill Harten, GEDCOM coordinator for the LDS Church’s Family History Department, announced that GEDCOM 6.0 was under development. (We are all still waiting for GEDCOM 6.0, twenty years later.)

CompuServe shocked the computer industry when they announced a new offering of UNLIMITED online time for only $19.95 a month. All online services had previously charged by the hour. (CompuServe did not remain as the industry’s low-cost leader for long. In fact, little remains of the company at all these days. I visited CompuServe’s former headquarters in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago and found that the building is now occupied by a different company, one that is not in the computer business.)

An online genealogist in Scotland was rescued from possible death by a group of other genealogists in the U.S., including this writer, when using a genealogy chat room. Reverend Ken Walker, a Scottish history expert who lived alone, had a seizure while online and was unable to disconnect his computer from the phone line in order to call for medical help. The online genealogists in the same chat room deduced his location and placed a trans-Atlantic telephone call to the police in Walker’s hometown. An ambulance arrived within minutes. The doctors who later examined Walker at a local hospital stated that he probably would not have survived without immediate medical attention. In short, a genealogy chat room in the Internet apparently saved his life.

I wrote a review of the “books” written by Halberts of Bath, Ohio. These contained no genealogy information, only listings from telephone directories. (The company later declared bankruptcy and went out of business.)

“Relations” was a new genealogy program for Apple’s handheld Newton devices.

Geni, a genealogy program for Psion 3 handheld computers, was released.

CommSoft, the company that produced Roots IV for MS-DOS and also Visual Roots, announced their latest genealogy program: Family Gathering for Windows. A few months later a Macintosh version was announced. Late in the year, the same company announced the release of Roots V for Windows.

Other genealogy software reviewed in the 1996 newsletters included KinWin 1.1, GENTREE (in French), Family Tree Maker version 3.0, Tree-O, Family Matters, Kith and Kin, Brothers Keeper for Windows, Personal Ancestral File for the Macintosh version 2.3.1, Family Tree International, FamilyBase, PAF*Mate, Ahnenforscher (in German), Genius for Windows, FamilyTree for OS/2, Cumberland Family Tree for Windows, The Master Genealogist’s new Windows version, Family Origins version 5, Family Matters, Family History Composer for the Macintosh, and Corel’s “Family Tree Master.” How many of those programs are still available?

Yes, 1996 was a newsworthy year. I must say that I have also enjoyed the succeeding years. In fact, genealogy is easier, faster, more popular, and more enjoyable twenty years later. It’s been a great ride.


It is amazing and wonderful what computers–and people like you, Dick–have done for family history. Even what I found a few years ago would be so much easier today. Can’t wait to see what the next few years bring.


We really have come a long way! I remember having Brothers Keeper shareware before 1996. Possibly an older version.


Wow ! Your newsletter rang a bell for me. I had a Packard Bell 60 mhz with 16 megs of memory. Also believe I had Family Tree Maker 3.0. I remember storing the data on floppy disks. I had recently retired and never had any computer knowledge so I was definitely living in computer la-la land. What a change to 2017, I still need to check with my grandchildren to resolve problems.


Loved your trip down memory lane Dick. One of my earlier PC’s had 4 megs of Ram (thought I’d died and gone to heaven), then I upgraded to 8 megs of Ram (and thought I’d died and gone to heaven), then I got that lightening fast machine that you had, a 90-Mhz Pentium 1 (and thought I’d died and gone to heaven) until I got a Pentium II. Gee I’ve died and gone to heaven so many times I don’t think my family tree has input fields for all those times! Cheers


I wish Netscape would make a comeback. I remember 1988 very well as well. My friend introduced me to something called the Net. But I had to go to the University to use it.


Just checked and the earliest EOGN newsletter I have saved on my computer is May 2001. I probably have earlier issues on old back up disks! Other than the odd issue with something I particularly wan to keep, I don’t bother to save them any more as I can see them on your website.

John in Oz


It’s been a great ride for me as well, one that started in irritation in 1963 when I married and my wife brought along her dog and showed me its four generation pedigree.
Only one modern manual in those days, by Arthur Willis and that led to 2 – 3 monthly 100 mile trips to London. In the lovely old PRO in Chancery Lane, census booklets were handed out in huge boxes to be rummaged through and there was only one street index, to London 1851.
BMD indexes were available only at Somerset House where you had to pay to consult for a specific item over a five year period. Inspectors patrolled to make sure that you didn’t stray outside the paid-for years. Most research involved handling original documents and most contacts were made by letter.
Interesting facts came to light, such as in the preface to a printed book of PRO probates(?), c.1900, where the author described the then Keeper the Public Records as a man who had done so much to keep the public from their records.
There was never enough to do – until family history societies started, perhaps in the late 1960s, and we set about indexing and transcribing writing onto on 5” x 3” slips of paper later to be typed up. We got on hands and knees in all weathers recording gravestone inscriptions. (Even now, half of Gloucestershire’s burial grounds remain unrecorded).
A very different world from the now electronic one.


It was Compuserve that actually got me started with my genealogy research and interest. I worked for company that was getting into website design. We had a compuserve account. I would sneak on it and poke around the genealogy forum and connected to a distant cousin in Ohio and I thought that was the coolest thing. Compuserve genealogy forums opened up a whole world for me and I found a first cousin in Germany and I was hooked. I haven’t stopped searching since. Thank God I did the bookkeeping at my job because I remember the charge for Compuserve that month was about $90. Yikes. I never told my boss. I got my own account after that and the rest is history.


I married an IT computer geek in 1995. Alas my one work foray into computers made me hate them. He decided his wife needed to learn to like them so deduced that I loved genealogy so we needed to find a program. Learn to love computers from something I loved. After many hours looking and me unsure if this scheme, we bought Family Tree Maker. I still have those two disk to this day to remember where I started. Shortly after that I found your newsletter to help me along this new journey. His idea worked a little too well I’m sure he thinks sometimes.


Yes, the world has changed in 20 yrs. and in my opinion NOT for the better! While the NOW has so much on-line the effort it takes to make IT RIGHT is not there, not like 20 yrs. ago or earlier when folks had to really dig for what they wanted, versus now, where pick and choose and paste is the trend… not knowing whether what they have is right or wrong!! Personally I would NOT trust most family Trees on-line now, whether is is A.Com or Heritage or some of the others…. far too many folks are just pickers and choosers of info that “looks right” to them, but has no real depth of research or sources behind IT. THEY are NOW just building Trees and have NO idea whether what they are building is RIGHT or WRONG… THE NET has made more info available, but the DEPTH of work on that info is NOT there, so with so many folks just grabbing data and posting it in quote THEIR TREES does NOT make it a better world….. sorry folks, genealogy research is really going down the drain, at least the QUALITY of the WORK is!!!!!!!


I have to disagree with you, Scott, on the quality of work aspect. Yes, it may be true for many people, but more people have access to good instruction and help. A friend and I held classes at our local libraries for about 10 years and always had a full house for the “Beginning Genealogy” session. We stressed using the online “trees” as only clues, and to always look for documentation and site the sources, so those following us could trace our “footsteps”. We introduced many people to sites online that would help them, again stressing to use the clues and find sources to verify any data they found. Online access has increased the interest in family history and that is a good thing. Younger people are becoming interested and bringing their energy with them. Our genealogy society is growing as a result of easier access.

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My wife and I have been doing Genealogy since the 1970’s and you are right about the change. When we started out, we had no computers and we had to write all the information on Family Group Sheets. When we needed information we would go to Salt Lake City, Utah, or Cemetery’s, Court houses, or write other people, or go to where the families lived, to get our family information. I will say that that was the best years for our research, as we saw the area where our families live, and found and talked to cousins and people that we would never meet now that the computers have made research easier. My wife and I have taken our trailer, and have been to all ares in the 48 United States and in Ontario to British Columbia, Canada and would recommend any one now doing research to do the same, if possible.


1996 was the year I began genealogy research. I happened to be home with a baby (now in college!), and we got our first internet connection. I remember exploring Ancestry and entering some names from a hand drawn pedigree an uncle had created. It was one surname (a male line), with all the women who “married in” listed, but not identified with parents. One of the women’s names gave me a Mayflower hit within 2 generations. And I was hooked. Forever!


Beverly Whitaker

How well I remember many of the items you mentioned from 20 years ago. Having retired in 1994 from faculty at a local community college, I decided to turn my family history hobby started in 1976 into a part-time business and became a Certified Genealogy Record Searcher. I first met you at the Plano, Texas conference where I was a speaker on the subject of “Computer Genealogy.” Since that time, I’ve continued my own research, lectured at various genealogical conferences and taught family history courses, designed and sold a variety of genealogical aids, did extensive research for clients, published a half dozen “How to …” books, and created several courses for Canada’s National Institute for Genealogical Studies. I’m retired again, but my many surviving web sites continue to generate questions, as recent as today! My newest Family History Project is thriving over the Internet by which I an sharing my collection of ancestral items pertaining to my four grandparents, divided into 5 folders each–charts, documents, photos, stories, and timelines. Family History is an unending adventure! Thanks, Dick, for your inspiration keeping me at it all along these years!


Ah…a trip down memory lane…I purchase my first computer in 1984 with a HUGE 20 Mb hard drive. The sales person said I would never need anything bigger – ha! Can you imagine that nowadays? I have progressed through the years to a 2 Terabyte hard drive with 12 Gig Ram… all-in-one with a 27 inch screen. I love it! I’ve learned a lot along the way – including tips from your newsletter, as well as aging gracefully at 71. Thank you for reminding us where we came from in our wonderful hobby!


    I am so glad I learned genealogy research the old fashioned way (1977) with letter writing (and waiting forever for answers). The research librarian at our local library and I became good friends over the years as I ordered film after film from the National Archives (and waited for those to be shipped to the library!) My arm and eyes got tired from reading microfilm, but finding the treasures in newspapers and census records brought me a lot of joy!


I started genealogy in earnest in the early 1980s. All of it was thru snail mail or visits on phone or personally. I really made some finds. Then came a used computer which I was told had all the storage I would need although I have forgotten the figure. That figure has long been exceeded and a number of later computers.
Somehow I subscribed to a genealogy program but could not understand why so little info appeared. It’s embarrassing even now to admit that I was unaware that all I had to do was scroll down and there it was!
The Internet has enabled me to “meet” cousins I likely would never have found thru the written searches.


Thanks for stirring so many memories..we live in such a great age, with the best of the new and the old… still love archives and libraries, but also love searching online…

I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs at Friday Fossicking at

Thank you, Chris


In 1996 we were still waiting for the arrival of the PalmPilot. Thanks so much for your 2 decades of dedication!


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