my history of the internet and computers

Last week I answered a question on Yahoo! Answers of someone who asked about the history of the internet and when pictures first appeared online. I thought it was quite an interesting question, and triggered me to reminisce about my first experiences with the online world and computing.

I must have been about 13 or 14 years old, in the early 1980’s when we got the first computer at home. That in itself was quite unique to have in those days and my dad had bought it second hand somewhere, because he was interested in this new technology. It came with a B/W monitor of around 10 inches. Its operating system was on a disk (I don’t think it even was  a 5.5 inch floppy, but something before that) and after loading the OS to memory, you could put in another disk to run software. It came with BASIC to create your own software applications. I remember that I tried making some simple BASIC modules, with the classic “GO TO xx”. A few years later the technology already became obsolete and the first PC’s made it to the consumer market. They came with a DOS operating system and large floppy disks. Besides DOS, some applications also became popular in those days, like Word Perfect and Lotus 123. We also got the first computer games: Leisure Suit Larry, which had really amazing graphics, considering that the monitors were ASCII based and had only 16 colours! It was fun going through the adventure and picking up objects that he needed in a later scene. There was also a “Boss key”, by pressing a Function key, it would pop up a complex graph on your screen to pretend to your boss that you are doing something serious and not playing a game.

When I was around 17, I had a summer job at my dad’s office, and got to use a Unix workstation as they used it for some data communication. I learned the Unix commands and how to use the vi-editor. I can’t remember whether I also used email in that time.

Around the same time we also started having computer lessons in school, when I was in sec5 (= comparable with JC1), as an extra lesson carried out by our Maths teacher who was quite interested in this. We did some simple programming as well, calculating with dates and incorporating leap years and summertime / wintertime.

When I was 18, in 1990, I started my university studies and enrolled in a Computer Science degree programme. The first year of my studies we were using Sun workstations with monochrome ascii based screens and my earlier knowledge of Unix came in handy. This was also my first encounter with the internet. We all had an email address and could send each other and our lecturers emails. Practical assignments had to be handed in by email to our practicum teacher-assistant. There were also online newsgroups, which could be accessed by typing the “rn” (read news) command. This was not so much used in our first year in college, but in later years when the practical assignments got more complex, we found ourselves posting questions on the world-wide bulletin boards and searching through earlier posted posts to learn more about certain programming languages. In 1991, my second year in Uni, we got access to Sun X-windows workstations, which used multiple windows and graphic representations with a mouse. Though inside the windows it was still text based commands. It was a huge revolution though, to be able to have 1 window open with your source code and 1 window with your compilation errors. And we had Corel Draw to make graphics to dress up the documents and make diagrams. Initially troff was used as a typesetter to create documents and only at the end of my studies, around 1995 LaTeX (pronounce: lah-tech) was launched, which made typesetting so much easier, using curly brackets with e.g. {heading1}heading text {\heading1}. In troff this would have been several lines of code, I can only remember “.B” for bold face, .I for italic, etc. but there were commands to be added for newline, font type, font size, etc.

But I’m going off topic now, let’s get back to the internet, in the early nineties the first browser came out, which was called Gopher and used hyper text. In those days only a few of the sites were available in Gopher, but we were happy because the Uni library had a search engine for us to search for book and conference proceedings.

Soon after Gopher came Mosaic, which became a more popular browser and allowed showing pictures in between the text. Newsgroup and email were still our main ways of using the internet in those days however and they were still text based. Besides tech-newsgroups, there were also hobby groups starting out and I joined one newsgroup on food recipes in Dutch – nl-culinair. Funny enough I recently found that the guy who had started the group, that was highly popular in those days where only few could use the internet either at work or in university, had put the old threads online and organised them into a modern way. Newsgroups were the predecessor of later day online forums.

In 1996 I graduated from my MSc course and started working. Initially in a government organisation, the Bureau of Statistics in Holland. I was given a PC to work on in the office and was told proudly by my supervisor that it was installed with Windows 95. And since I had studied Computer Science, I should know how to work with it and maybe even help my colleagues to use it. Cold sweat breaking out, I had no idea how to get started, having used Unix for the 6 years before that and done some summer jobs using DOS-based machines with Lotus123 and the latest WP version. Learned fast that Windows was about using the mouse, and not about typing commands. Absolutely hated it in the beginning and Word as well, I had to use the mouse to select and select stuff like font type and size from drop down menus. I did learn fast and was soon able to help out my colleagues with their Windows problems. Was even asked to conduct a training together with a colleague to the entire staff on how to use the Windows version of SPSS, as most were having problems in using it after being familiar with the DOS-based version of this statistics programs for many years.

So, how about the internet in the late nineties? In my office at the time, internet was only available on a standalone PC, that was shared with the entire department of about 80 persons. I had to do some research, so I frequently went over there and used it, printing out the information I found useful. Other than that my PC only had access to the Intra-net. Email could be sent to the outside world, but without attachments. This was a major challenge, as I was still working at the time to publish a paper together with one of my ex-classmates and my two supervisors in Uni. Also I had to get data to work on for a statistical research from the Ministry of Economics. A lot of paper work involved, to get permissions to receive a floppy disk, bring it in, let it be processed by a special security department who put it on the server for me to retrieve.

In 1998 I changed jobs and was stationed in KL, Malaysia. The company provided me with a laptop and a Compuserve email address that served as login to the internet as well, wherever in the world. Internet service providers started booming in those days and one of my first projects was end of 1998 in Shanghai to implement a helpdesk software and business processes according ITIL for Shanghai Online, one of the first ISP’s in China (government organisation). I also had a yahoo account and the first instant messengers came about. It was a way for me to keep in touch easily with my friends back home.

Since then internet has evolved rapidly, and more communication tools became available and in this short time span we are now ready for more interaction, higher end graphics, etc.

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