Journal: News & Comment

Friday, January 05, 2001
# 12:48:00 PM:

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I am an old-timer at 31

NOTE: On January 8, 2001, I posted a large batch of corrections to this badly-remembered tale. Please check them out above.

I can't pinpoint the exact date, but I know the place in cyberspace where it happened. Sometime soon is my tenth anniversary of using the Internet, and it began on a long-gone dial-up computer bulletin board system (BBS) here in Vancouver. The BBS was called the Twilight Zone, and had been built and run since 1984 by my friend Steve Hillman, who has since gone on to be a long-time employee of Simon Fraser University's computer operations department.

Steve was, and is, a pretty crafty hardware and software guy. To illustrate: The Twilight Zone (a.k.a. "TZ") ran from an Apple II with a modem and one phone line. Like most BBSs, only one person could call in at a time, so in today's terms, it was something like a serial Internet Service Provider (ISP), capable of handling no more than a single customer at any time. At one point Steve acquired an old Hewlett-Packard (I think) 50 MB hard drive. This was in the mid-80s, when 50 MB hard drives were the size of dishwashers -- and consumed more power. Steve's had probably been designed for a mainframe or minicomputer, but that didn't faze him.

He built his own interface card for this drive, and wrote his own driver software. On the drive, he stored download files that were too big for the floppy disks on the Apple, as well as his own local mirror of some Usenet newsgroups and Internet e-mail for TZ's users, of which I was one.

He soon discovered that the 50 MB drive consumed so much power that it was significantly increasing his parents' power bill each month. (TZ lived in his room in the attic of their Kitsilano house.) So he did some more hacking, and soon enough the drive only powered up when someone calling TZ requested files it contained -- thus, in the middle of the night he was sometimes awakened by the drive rumbling to life.

The Internet connection was primitive (Steve called it the Usenet connection, in fact -- that was the most important bit). Here's how it worked.

At a predetermined time in the middle of the night (eventually he revised it to several times a day, I believe), TZ -- if it wasn't busy with someone calling in -- would automatically dial up Wimsey, one of Vancouver's first ISPs, which has now apparently been absorbed into Inter.Net Canada. TZ would upload any e-mail and Usenet postings from its users since the last connection, and download new e-mail and Usenet postings for them. Then, the next time someone dialed in (at between 300 and 2400 bps -- not the 56,000 bps even modems are today), we could read new posts and e-mail. Our replies would go out the next day.

Being able to send e-mail around the world in less than a day was pretty cool. (Now I expect it to go out within seconds, of course.) Reading Usenet was also cool. There was no World Wide Web at all -- it wouldn't exist in any form for at least a year.

Our addresses then were all We used pseudonyms, and mine had been The Grodd since my earliest BBSing days in 1983. So I was -- that was my first Internet e-mail address. When Steve started working at SFU, he moved the Internet connection there, so I became At one point, Steve even experimented with a wireless connection between TZ and SFU -- something that's still pretty cutting edge ten years on.

Later, the 50 MB drive died a smoking death. We took the heavy steel, pizza-size, orange oxide-coated hard disk platters on our annual summer camping trip to Long Beach on Vancouver Island and used them as (potentially lethal) frisbees that would sail up, up in the howling west coast wind, slicing afterward into the soft sand -- and the occasional driftwood log. (No heads, fortunately.)

By late 1992, my Internet connection was through the University of B.C., where I eventually became something of an expert and sat on the university's Task Force on Appropriate Use of Information Technology. Now the Internet is my job.

I wonder where the Internet and I will be in another decade?


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