Celebrating first “summer of code,” Web launchings, 15 and 20 years ago

A few months more than 20 years ago, the pleasure boating monthly Soundings published an article headlined “Computers link boaters oceans apart,” probably the first time I managed to get something about the Internet into good-old-fashioned print.  The piece actually had more to do with commercial computer networks like CompuServe, Prodigy and BIX than the free-for-all Internet, but it did mention the ARPANET, BITNET and UUCP, all components of the pre-Web ‘net.

That was February of 1990, the year that computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee started defining the HyperText Markup Language and HyperText Transfer Protocol that would link Internet resources together like never before. I guess that means this is the 20th anniversary of the Web’s first “summer of code,” now an annual ritual for programmers.

Berners-Lee had proposed his “World Wide Web” idea in 1989 and spent a year at it, delivering the first browser and server by Christmas, and introducing it to an audience of physics researchers and technologists over the next year or two. The thing really took off in 1993 and 1994, after the University of Illinois’ NCSA released Mosaic, a free browser that used graphics and worked on  PCs and Macintoshes, as well as the Unix machines the research community used in the Web’s inaugural years.

That was enough to send me back to grad school — for a faster Internet connection — at the University of North Carolina, home of some of the first hypertext research and some of the first Web servers in the U.S., including sunsite.unc.edu, which I had been reaching from a Connecticut boatyard over a modem, a service called BIX and a text-only browser link to “laUNChpad.unc.edu.”

In Chapel Hill, Sunsite’s boss, Paul Jones, told me to give him my resume in HTML, so I figured out just enough of the language, using (I think) an early ncsa.uiuc.edu tutorial. But before Sunsite came up with an opening, the Raleigh News & Observer launched NandO.net, and I landed a part-time job preparing news stories for the Web at what was one of the Internet’s first 24/7 news sites.

In the beginning, we were publishing Web versions of stories from all or most of the wire services the N&O subscribed to for its print editions — treating the Web site as just another edition of the newspaper, but one that could handle dozens of new or updated stories every hour, drawing on the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times wire service, Bloomberg News and more. (There must have been some very interesting executive discussions of just what publication rights were covered by those wire contracts!)

The real surprise for me came as the school year was wrapping up — a call from Soundings‘ editor, Marleah Ross, announcing that my old employer, the monthly tabloid subtitled “The nation’s boating newspaper,” was launching a Web site of its own, and that I was invited to write the cover story for the August 1995 issue, then follow up with a regular column called “Data Waves.” The goal was to tell boaters why on earth they should care about the World Wide Web.

Fifteen years later, Soundingspub.com is still online, and I’ve just spent some nostalgic weeks documenting its online beginnings, and paying tribute to its late publisher, Jack Turner. See the current issue of the aptly titled Journal of Magazine and New Media Research. My essay “Getting Under Way in New Media” is downloadable as a PDF file here, but I also recommend the other articles in the journal, including editor Carol Schwalbe’s essay on “Finishability: An Antidote to Information Overload.” (Note, as of this writing the edition’s directory is at a “current issue” address, but it will be moved to an archival page in the fall, when a new edition comes out.)

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in AEJMC, Business, Computers, Digital Culture, History, hypertext, Internet, Journalism, Magazines

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