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Ideas

Dawn of the Web: an oral history

How did it feel when the Internet first arrived on your desk? What does a tidal wave look like from shore?

Hal Mayforth for the Boston Globe

In many ways, the world we inhabit today isn’t so dramatically different from the one that existed in 1994. The roads were full of Americans SUVs and Japanese sedans; Congress was mired in partisan dysfunction. Americans vaguely roused their enthusiasm for soccer as their team surpassed expectations in the World Cup. At night you flicked on cable, with hundreds of channels.

And then there was the way you used a computer.

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If you had a computer, and many people did, it sat on your desk and ran programs on floppy disks. It connected to the printer and—if you were very tech savvy—to a dial-up service like America Online or Compuserve.

But that year the public began to pick up on rumblings of something new: a piece of technology called the World Wide Web that allowed you to connect to an “Internet” through your phone line. On the “Today” show, Katie Couric described it with skepticism in her voice as a computer thing “that’s becoming really big now.” Vice President Al Gore, in a speech, compared it to an “information superhighway.”

The Web had existed for a couple of years as a kind of insiders’ tech experiment, and the Internet had been around longer. But it was 1994 when the world pivoted, and fast. The number of websites grew from 623 at the beginning of the year, according to one study, to more than 10,000 at the end. E-mail quickly spread from universities to offices and homes.

To illustrate just how far we’ve come since those days, NPR recently published a memo dated April 28, 1994, that was sent to all staff in order to announce, “Internet is coming to NPR!” “If you want to find out what the Internet is, how and when NPR is going to use it, join us for a presentation and discussion [tomorrow] at noon in the Board Room.”

To put oneself in the shoes of a person receiving such a note is to imagine a curious but justifiably naive observer, standing on a shore and peering into the horizon at what looks like an approaching swell—only to realize, after some squinting, that it is a tidal wave. Today, the Internet has transformed life for NPR and nearly everyone else. Many of the businesses standing on that shore and gazing out—from music to journalism to retail of all stripes—would be fundamentally transformed when the water crashed down on them.

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What did the Web really look like during that early moment? How quickly did people move from incomprehension to curiosity to some kind of embrace? What did they get wrong, and what did they get right? To find out, Ideas called a variety of Bostonians who were there—people involved in law, sports, publishing, and technology—and asked them to recall the moment when some of the region’s most iconic businesses and institutions first grappled with a new force whose implications no one could have fully understood.

I. “There’s this thing coming”

BECKY SAIKIA-WILSON, then-manuscript editing supervisor, Houghton Mifflin: We went into it with such naivete about what it would mean. It was such a gradual and nebulous thing. It wasn’t as though we came in one day and there was this new thing to do called e-mail. Talking to other old-timers here, everyone has the same recollection. It was very much a ripple and not like, “Whoa, this new technology is going to change how we do our jobs every day.”...[Houghton Mifflin] had a New York office at that time, too, and we spent a lot of time on the phone. But I don’t ever remember the thought occurring to me, “Oh, now I don’t have to pick up the phone because now I can just send an e-mail.”

DICK BRESCIANI, then-vice president of PR for the Boston Red Sox: I did not know how big this was going to grow, and to what extent it could be used. It was all uncharted waters. We had one high-tech person on staff, and then later I think we had two. But they were learning also. In the beginning, it was a little—well, not overwhelming, but it was, “Wow, are we going to be able to catch on to this? Are we going to be able to learn this?” It seemed like...a lot. But it seemed like something we should embrace. There was an apprehension, I would say.

FRANK KRAMER, former owner of the Harvard Bookstore: There was an entrepreneur who had a company he had started called The Internet Company. He comes into the store one day and says, “I have an idea for a thing on the Internet.” He wanted to open something called the Internet Newsstand, and his idea was he was going to put up a whole lot of articles from a whole lot of different magazines, and people would read an article and then go and buy a subscription to the magazine. That was his idea....He said there’s this thing coming called the World Wide Web where people will be able to go to buy things and learn about things. And I didn’t know what he was talking about, really—he was talking a language I didn’t understand!...I remember he wanted to post all the titles in our philosophy section on his site. But frankly I’m not really clear on what the idea was. It was just too new a concept for me, so I didn’t pursue it very hard. I said I’d get back to him but I didn’t.

Andrew Sudbury used one of the computer terminals at Cafe Liberty in Central Square, one of the first cybercafes in the US. According to Sudbury, using the computers cost about $4 an hour.

Andrew Sudbury used one of the computer terminals at Cafe Liberty in Central Square, one of the first cybercafes in the US. According to Sudbury, using the computers cost about $4 an hour.

ANDREW SUDBURY, cofounder of Cafe Liberty, an early cybercafe in Cambridge: Very few people had their own computers when we opened [in 1994]. It was still kind of rare. Even at MIT, where I lived in a house with 30 people, maybe 20 percent of us had our own computers. And that was at MIT. So the general public did not have computers by and large....At MIT, I had the luxury of having access to the Athena computer system, which was essentially a campuswide version of the Internet with all sorts of features that we’d later see replicated on the Net—like instant messages. We knew how useful a lot of those things were and could be.

II. “I’m not doing this”

BARRY SHEIN, founder of The World, first company to provide Web access to the general public: When I started to put the public on the Internet for the first time, I got flak. People thought it was illegal, because for a long time you had to be part of an approved research institution to have access to the Web. So people involved in Internet governance, such as it was...they sent me hate mail saying, “You can’t do this. This is not a public resource. You have no right to put people on the Internet.” I was letting people in the front door of the country club and saying, “Help yourselves to the buffet.”...I offered to help put all of Boston public schools online. I tried—I talked with somebody at the main offices. I remember they were very interested. There were 10 school districts in Boston. They had no Internet access, they weren’t even sure what it was. I said, “Look, I’ll give you 10 accounts, one for each district.” I decided if I gave it to them for free, nothing would happen, whereas when people pay money for something they get psychologically invested in it. So I asked for $10 per district for month—$100 per month for all 10 districts. No other charges. And the person I was talking to said, “Oh that’s fantastic. Thank you for supporting the school system.” But then nothing happened. She called me a few weeks later and she said, “Look, I’m really sorry but...I brought it up in the school board meeting and explained the whole thing, your generous offer, and gave a presentation about it, and somebody immediately said, ‘If there’s $100 lying around, I want it.’” And so it died right there. Because someone wanted the money for textbooks or pencils or art supplies.

ROBERT MCCARTHY, then-special library assistant at the Boston Public Library: There were certain people who worked here who were just like, “I’m not doing this, because it’s not gonna be here long.” I had to combat some of my own staff members here who said, “Is this really going to stick?”...The problem was, while some of the people who came in to use the PCs at the library were familiar with the Web, the majority were not, and they would look for guidance from library staff. But unfortunately they weren’t familiar with it either, because they had only minimal training on how to get a person on, or in, or how to use Office.

JOHN PETROWSKY, vice president at Hammond Real Estate: The company hired people to come in and tell us what e-mail was, how we could use it, what implications it had for our business. They explained that technology was going to be changing quickly, and that what we were doing was outdated. Many brokers were angry to hear their methods called antiquated....I remember during the coffee breaks there were heated discussions between brokers about whether this was going to be a good or a bad thing....[Some brokers] refused to get involved. They thought it was preposterous, or they thought it was just another way for corporations to make money.

JOANNE FOLEY, then-associate at Bingham Dana & Gould: I graduated from law school in 1991 and I came to Bingham in 1995...and at that point in time, we actually didn’t have e-mail yet. I recall going to my e-mail training at Bingham with any number of other attorneys [where] they would teach you, for example, how to compose a new e-mail, [starting with] how to populate the “to” box. We sort of learned our e-mail addresses as a code—it’s going to be your first name with a period, your last name, an “at” sign, and so on. Immediately people said, “Well, I’m not gonna type in all those letters!” Because nobody really typed 20 years ago. You have to bear in mind—at that time, we had assistants for that. And so the idea of having to type all those letters into a “to” box—like, that was a challenge at the time! And then you had to actually type the message? If you compare that to picking up a dictaphone, talking into a dictaphone and handing a tape to an assistant to transcribe and send—it was just a world apart.

III. “Oh my God!”

MICHELLE JOHNSON, first editorial manager of boston.com: There were six or eight of us. And we were tasked with getting a beta up in about six months, which now seems kind of long, but back then seemed crazy, to do it so fast. But we managed to pull it off....When we launched boston.com [in the fall of ’95], most websites were like a single page that fit on the screen—because we made a page that scrolled, one of the designers came up with the idea of putting an arrow at the bottom of the screen that said, “Scroll down for more.” People had to be told to scroll!...One of the first responses that we got was from some guy in India who was like, “Oh my God, I can get the Red Sox scores in real time!” Of all the stuff we were doing we weren’t expecting people to get that excited about getting sports scores—it hadn’t crossed our minds. We were also focused on a local audience, and here was this guy from halfway around the world who was jumping up and down about getting to read our sports stories.

BILL BLOCHER, founder of Bit Bucket, a Newton computer store opened in 1980: We found that people were very eager to learn as more and more things came out that they could do. I remember there was a site called Andy’s Garage Sale—they were an early commerce site, and they had ‘The Deal of the Day.” That was one of the things people liked to do, was go out and find bargains. And a lot of people wanted to know how to use the online stock market products, where you could see live running tickers and...get information that only stockbrokers had before.

MCCARTHY: We used to call it the Races. The building would open here at 9 o’clock in the morning and when the doors opened, all the people gathered outside made a running dash to get to the computers first. We thought that was peculiar behavior for adults to be engaged in.

SHEIN: I remember I worked with the Catholic Archdiocese—they’d come over [to our offices in Coolidge Corner] in full garb. They were very, very interested, very active. They were an interesting customer—they were trying to get all 400 parishes hooked up. They thought, instead of printing up the church newsletters that said who’s the new parish priest in Boston or what have you—those things they handed out on Sundays—they could maybe put some of this online, even as plain text, and save $10,000 a month in printing costs.

IV. “Very bad habits”

MCCARTHY: With the porno stuff, we didn’t approve of it but we had to condone it, because everybody has rights. We ended up having to buy what they called privacy screens, so that if you looked head-on at the computer you could see what was going on, but if you looked at it from an angle you couldn’t.

AL PETRAS, then manager of PC support at Boston Edison: People had very bad mailbox habits, like they’d never delete any e-mails, and we were physically running out of space....I remember walking around at one point with stacks of magazines, brochures, letters, and things like that in wire baskets...and I’d go into people’s offices and put them on their desk and say, “This is what your e-mail looks like.” The visual helped. It was sort of like, would you let your physical mailbox in the office look like this?

SHEIN: We needed a lot of customer support—that was something that really beat me up. I ended up with people doing 24/7 telephone support, maybe 30 or 40 people on telephones in a bullpen. Because customers were always having trouble—either they couldn’t dial in, or their equipment wouldn’t function properly.

PETROWSKY: We had to get legal advisers to come in and lecture us on the implications of texting and e-mailing. We were told that all our messages would be binding—that we couldn’t say things lightly, and that [we] would be accountable for...every word. That was scary to some [brokers.] They felt like they were being watched. They wondered who would have access to all this information that they were going to convey, how private it would be.

V. “This incredible new means of communication”

SAIKIA-WILSON: Not everyone in the company had the hardware—we were very strategic in those early days about who had access to the equipment. To access e-mail you had to go to one of the workstations, so you never knew if people were checking. You could go and log on and check your e-mail, but it wasn’t like people had e-mail popping up in front of them constantly...I actually didn’t realize that the network went outside Houghton Mifflin, so a friend who had been telling me about getting e-mail at her job—she worked at a university— gave me her e-mail address, and just for fun I tried typing it in and sending her a note, and she called me to say, “I got your e-mail!”

FOLEY:I will say that while it was met with a certain reluctance, once it was sort of introduced and people went through their training, there was almost an instantaneous adoption of this incredible new means of communication....I remember the first time I was on a leveraged buyout, I had to go to New York for the closing, and a partner and I traveled to N.Y. with two assistants and five case-boxes full of discs and documents and paper...two or three years later, we were transmitting documents via e-mail, we did not have to have a paper closing, nobody had to travel to obtain signatures. When I first started working, we actually had this term called “deal jewelry,” where you would wear rubber bands around your wrist so you could stack up documents and elasticize them and pack them into FedEx boxes. That is virtually unheard of now.

JOHNSON: The thing that shocked me the most was how quickly young people moved away from print. I would not have bet anybody that [it would happen] as fast as it did....I felt a little blindsided....The term “cannibalize” did come up. I remember people saying we’d cannibalize the print product by giving away stories online. And at the time I was squarely in the camp of, “the Web wants to be free.” It was just the culture back then: You can’t charge people for stuff online. Had I taken the longer view, I would have seen that we were training a generation to expect great stuff for free and that that was going to hurt us. But back then I would have thrown my body on the tracks and said we’d be crazy to charge for this.

SUDBURY: We had people who were using the cafe computers the way you’d use Wi-Fi now—like, they were tech savvy, they knew what they needed to do, but they needed access because they needed to look something up or send an e-mail....And then there were people who just wanted to see what it was like. They just wanted to go look at a website. It was sort of just very novel to them, and they would just click around on things. Because back then, clicking around on things was wildly entertaining, because it was so novel....It sounds corny, but it blew people’s minds.

It felt really good to see people see the Internet for the first time. The people who reacted the most were probably older people—the younger people were at least hip to the idea that this was coming, or they’d heard about it, or they’d had access to it at school—but seeing people’s mothers when they would come to visit, who had heard about it, and just came by to see what it was like. I don’t know if they understood exactly the implications, but they were always very amazed that it could even exist.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail leon.neyfakh@globe.com.

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