I had taken for granted all of my old websites for a long time. When I took my oldest child to the University of Maryland’s field day for prospective new students, I saw an exhibition which made me really stop and think. The University was working on an archeology of the early days of the Internet. They were working on excavating the oldest homestead websites on the Internet which was a place named GeoCities. Given that I had built several homesteads on GeoCities back in the early days it made me realize that those of us who built the early internet and maintained it had done something historical. That had never occurred to me before that field day.
The story began for me before the Internet was a thing yet. Not only did I maintain the monster water-cooled IBM systems for a Bell Atlantic datacenter where the Internet began but I also participated where the Internet really came from. Most histories report the Internet as having come from government funded ARPANET. Well technically that’s where the technology funding came from but what made the Internet explode was an entirely different source. That source was one that I have never seen cited for the reason the Internet took off in the 1990s. I will explain this in a minute but I think now I should start at the very beginning.
A co-worker and close friend had done 5 tours in Vietnam before moving his family to Germany and then back to the states in the 1980s on retirement from the Army. I not only had the great good fortune of getting to work and know Dave Decker (my coworkers called him Sarge) but in having spent so many hundreds of hours working together he taught me many other things. Sometimes we would work for 35 hours straight together on very difficult problems at work. You tend to get to know someone when you are so tired and hungry you begin to shiver from lack of food and sleep. Dave loved computers so much he built them at home as a hobby. One day he showed me a cassette player he used to store his programs and data. When he showed me what it could do – I was hooked.
Now the one thing that didn’t sink in for me was that even though Dave could fix anything – car, computer – you name it he always picked the best technology which always lost the tech wars. In other words he picked Betamax instead of the winner VHS. He was all in on Atari and I joined him when I purchased an Atari 520ST. It was a keyboard which housed the CPU and you could hook stuff to it like a floppy disk and even a hard drive. I did splurge and get the color monitor and then took everything out of the keyboard except the keyboard and screwed all of that to a piece of plywood. For a case I got an original IBM PC case and there you have my first computer. It looked like crap. It worked very well.
Because Apple and IBM won the PC wars I watched in dismay as my Atari was relegated to a single shelf in the stores along with Commodore software. Within three years you basically could not find anything to buy in the US for Atari or Commodore where I lived. I had move to an IBM PC which I couldn’t afford – they cost almost $5,000 back then so I had to build it piece meal from parts I swapped with other home builders back in the day. Eventually you buy computer pieces from catalogs which we read cover to cover when they came out like they were best sellers.
Ok so you get how I got into the hardware side of personal systems but what you don’t know is the software was always hard to source. It was also really expensive so we always wanted to try software out before we bought it. They did not have trial versions of anything back then. Here is where the Internet really comes from.
There was an old bulletin board service company in Vienna Virginia which we hobbyists subscribed to before the Internet was a thing. It was called AOL. AOL had grown out of a special board for Commodore and Apple which is why I knew about the AOL bulletin board. Don’t forget that back then I had an Atari. We were hunting anything which could soup up our Atari rigs and we met on the AOL board to swap software. Given that we were using external modems which were horribly slow you can imagine how small the software was in order for us to download it from the bulletin board. I remember exchanging emails with Steve Case when I sent in a suggestion to AOL which he personally responded in how to improve the bulletin board service. By 2001 Steve Case would become the CEO of Time Warner when they purchased AOL for $164 Billion dollars! This is what I mean by what caused the Internet to explode. We were upgrading pieces of our rigs all the time – but it was the software which drove us and specifically propelled the Internet to expand at warp speed out of nowhere.
AOL moved from a bulletin board service to becoming the largest Internet Service Provider (ISP) and in so doing they created software which they mailed for free to everybody. They enabled someone who knew nothing about computers to be able to send and receive email and surf the Internet. AOL drove the popular explosion of the Internet. Bill Gates commented at the time that the Internet was full of nothing but Pirates and initially did not think the Internet could ever become a sustainable business. He changed his mind in a few months due to how fast the thing was expanding.
I on the other hand parted ways with AOL before they went on to become the world’s largest ISP because of a guy named Marc Andreessen. He invented Netscape as a browser. I always went with the cheapest ISP given that with the Netscape browser I could easily cruise the web. In fact, Dave had shown me ARPANET in per-Internet days. It required you to type in commands at the bottom of the screen to move between libraries and such. Was pretty boring. But when Netscape arrived and I saw what it could do – I spent $5,000 building a serious PC tower rig. After I had it up and running – I hardly slept for two weeks. What I was doing was learning HTML in order to build my first website.
I fell head over heels for the Internet because back then it was filled with hobbyists like me. People who build their own rigs and their own websites because nothing was for sale yet on the Internet. Maybe you found some advertising but that was it. TV began when people started sharing their home-made travel movies – well so did the Internet. Except our websites were about … well nothing really. My first website began with the hottest tech on the Net at that time – animated gifs. Images which moved like little movies. Then I added a family tree and then I started scanning photos of artwork and off I went.
I found GeoCities in 1995 and began building the first of many personal websites. GeoCities was divided into virtual neighborhoods and because my mother had immigrated after WW2 from Vienna Austria, I chose Vienna and my address was 1999. Now the reason GeoCities would ultimately fail was right in my choice. The GeoCities neighborhood of Vienna was supposed to be for people who were into music not because their mom had once lived there. My first site at GeoCities had an animated GIF saying welcome to my website flashing in the middle of it. During my first year I collected as many animated gifs as I could find and posted them on my website. Those gifs were the rock stars of the early Internet. I think I have like 500 of them.
Then as you can see in the 2nd image, I made the website look like an old library naming it Auslander Strasse (Foreigner Street). Both for it not being about music and that I am a foreigner in my mother’s homeland. The last image shows a 1990s incarnation of the website. By that point GeoCities was in the top 5 for web traffic. I was there for awhile and then would move to own personal .com and .net variations of my website. Got lazy and went to Facebook for a few years. Facebook and MySpace killed GeoCities. I have periodically brought my personal websites out of mothballs based on whatever I was working on (art and books).
So that’s the supersonic retelling for the story of what really powered the Internet to do its Big Bang growth and where I was through it all. This last incarnation of lboeckl.net was created because at the start of the pandemic the webhosting company cranked up my pricing by 10x. Because they thought that no company could shutter during the pandemic as everything was locked down, they would take advantage of it. Of course, I am not a company so I could walk away and did. It was only recently when I thought – I wanted to do the another personal website but this time using a traditional WordPress site. You can check out my newbies link to see how this one has come out of the ground.