Open Thread

Open Thread Update: The First Time Online

Last time we asked everyone to share their very first internet memory in the comments.  Your answers revealed the wonder and almost miraculous possibilities the internet presented for communication and connection.

Like reader Mary Lou:

My son was teaching in Japan. I’ll never forget the thrill of being able to instant message and chat with him on AOL. It was miraculous. Then we figured out how to create a private chat room so my son in San Francisco in college, my son in Japan, and I in LA could chat together in real time. Made me think of mothers in the 18 century who would send their grown children off and get maybe one letter a year, if that.

-Mary Lou

Others recalled the  wonder – and the pain – like Reader Mary Ellen: 

…I remember the first time I saw something animated. It was Charlie Chaplin doing a little dance. I also remember dial-up, but dial-up would hang up AOL when you had an incoming call.

-Mary Ellen

And we’re honored to host someone who was there at the very start! We owe Reader Laurie a debt of gratitude; she was on the team in 1982 that built the pre-internet.  Anyone remember Prodigy? Read her story in the comments!

First Time Online Gems

The stories in the comments run the gamut from “OMG our computer is TALKING to the White House!!” (calm down, Sandee!!) to looking up Quasimodo jokes, (thanks, Eric!)  to how to tame rhubarb (thanks, Patty!) to global connections at a UN conference in China (Reader Judy said “it was like mail time at camp’) to getting medical information and more.

Every comment is a gem, revealing the width, depth and impact of a new technology that changed our lives and the world.  Read them all and add your own!

Original text below:

We are the only generation that knew a time when the internet did not exist. Younger generations can’t even conceive of it.  For us, it was world-shaking that a phone line, a computer and a little CD-like disc could open up the world to us.

My late husband was a programmer, so we were a bit ahead of the curve, but even Michael was blown away by our first time online in the early 90’s. Remember this sound?

When Michael and I first heard that noise, we realized the Internet was a wonderful world full of possibilities – for community, for information, for enlightenment. It was the herald of a Golden Age!

So what was our very first encounter with the internet?

A bulletin board about the Simpsons.

And for the next hour or so, we downloaded a collection of every catchphrase and punchline in the show.  And remember, this was before YouTube (GASP!) so all we had was page after page of “Eat my Shorts” and “Release the Hounds” printed on pink paper on our dot matrix printer. D’Oh!

That was my first contact with the Internet. What was the first thing you did or looked up online? Tell your story in the comments!

Need something to jog your memory? Here’s a collection of sounds familiar to those of us who were online pioneers  – you know, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Virge Randall is Senior Planet’s Managing Editor. She is also a freelance culture reporter who seeks out hidden gems and unsung (or undersung) treasures for Straus Newspapers; her blog “Don’t Get Me Started” puts a quirky new spin on Old School New York City. Send  Open Thread suggestions to




31 responses to “Open Thread Update: The First Time Online

  1. in the late 70’s I worked at HP and built “desktop calculators” that were bigger than a breadbox and used punch card programs. I would use one to figure out our monthly schedule of how many printed circuit boards we needed to build a day to make schedule. I never dreamed that these expensive “calculators” would eventually be something I would use every day and have several in my home!!
    I used email at work 1st and getting an email from my son in the Marines from a navy ship in Europe!!

  2. Great topic !
    DOS (disk operated system) used the floppy (flexible) diskettes reminiscent of old 45lp phonograph records.
    PRE-dating internet were ARPAnet & private telecom networks, such as 1985-86–did seminars explaining the basics of GEONET, a proprietary system owned by then-Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company–was 4th largest bank in US (and possibly globally), before a series of mergers with Chemical Bank, and then Chase.

    If your head is hurting to hear all these old names, its okay !

  3. My introduction to computers happened at work – a rickety mainframe which relied on decks of punch cards to operate….OY when the operators dropped the deck!
    In ’95 I had my first desktop built – they wanted to know why I thought I needed .5 gig of RAM LOL
    Anyway we did like everyone else – AOL dial-up – and within my first couple experimental runs I discovered the online Spider Robinson fan group alt.callahans – absolutely made it all worthwhile! ;-) Still friends with some of them today!

  4. At work I remember our Director saying that he could not conceive why an administrator might ever want or need a computer. This was a science environment in the early 90s. At the time we had a huge noisy Wang word processor that required its own room with soundproofing. I think the first thing that I did on a personal computer was solitaire and on the internet looking up the weather report

  5. My son was teaching in Japan. I’ll never forget the thrill of being able to instant message and chat with him on AOL. It was miraculous. Then we figured out how to create a private chat room so my son in San Francisco in college, my son in Japan, and I in LA could chat together in real time. Made me think of mothers in the 18 century who would send their grown children off and get maybe one letter a year, if that.

  6. I, unfortunately, can’t remember what I had looked up. This was because my parents especially my father (I miss him very much), didn’t think it was necessary to get any kind of word-processing equipment/technology. When I worked, computers, were peripherals. What’s inputted, that’s what’s accessed. Because of the supervisor I had, she didn’t think I needed the internet. Just think, I’m the one that had to look certain things up for the team. Her assistant would email links. Ho Hum!!!!!!!! LOL

  7. I got on AOL early on. It must have been 1990. You could not have a password longer than 5 characters and if I remember correctly you paid something like $5 for 5 hours. I might be wrong on those numbers but I do remember it wasn’t reee. I remember the first time I saw something animated. It was Charlie Chaplin doing a little dance. I also remember dial-up, but dial-up would hang up AOL when you had an incoming call. I eventually got a second landline to dial into AOL.

  8. We got computers at work, but mainly only used them for word processing. My sons had Ataris and the an early Mac. I learned on the Mac and found AOL. I decided that I liked it so much that others would and decided to buy the stock very early on and I was right for a while. I went on to sell and this money is the basis for my retirement! I still use my AOL mail out of gratitude and loyalty!

  9. I was on a team in 1982 that built the “pre-internet” for a CBS-AT&T joint venture that eventually became CBS/IBM/Sears “Prodigy”

    We had dedicated terminals built by then Bell Labs. Half were connected to a TV. The others were standalone devices. The test bed was the affluent town of Ridgewood, N.J.

    Probably the first thing I actually DID online that year was read things from CompuServe and The Source (then owned by Readers Digest) as part of our product development.

  10. Fall of ‘94 my 15 year old son was pleading for this thing called the internet. he insisted it was for homeworkI gave in. We got a ‘box’ from our phone company. My son got it hooked up and connected. The first site he went to was the White House ! I started saying “our computer is TALKING to the White House. “My son said “Calm down Mom. It’s just the internet!” The funny thing is my parents were very upset with me when I wouldn’t watch the moon landing. But we’d always been in space. No biggy

  11. Searching Medline for medical information for doctors and other health care providers using a dial-up modem and TI acoustic coupler and printer! It was like magic for our health professionals as well as for us as librarians. And this was when consumers/patients were NOT allowed to use those systems. We also had to use archaic command languages and go through lengthy training.
    What changes!!!! Now all that and so much more is freely available!

  12. My wife and I had used computers before, but we bought our first home PC (Gateway) in the spring of 1997 when her hometown, Grand Forks, ND, was flooded and her parents’ home was heavily damaged. So we tracked flood information on line at home rather than run to the library daily. But I do remember a lighter task: I looked up the famous “Quasimodo and his brother” joke, (his face rings a bell, etc.) and it took maybe three seconds to come back with any number of “hits.” I was convinced !!

  13. My very first thing to do on the internet was to send an email! I could not wrap my head around this capability. How is this possible? It’s magic! But it took a while to find someone who had an email address. Ha!

  14. I don’t know exactly which thing was first. But very soon my husband and I were ordering books from a little online site. You may have heard of it – Amazon. Over the years I’ll bet we bought a thousand books from them.

  15. My first real experience was in 1995 at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in China. At the NGO conference, women from HP and Apple had set up a space with computers. You could get a temporary address, send e-mail out, and then receive e-mail back. Here I was across the world from my home, and I could send and receive almost immediate written communications. Every day, I would come in, and it was like mail time at camp. It dawned on me how amazing and valuable e-mail could be.

  16. I don’t remember the exact first time or the dial up tones. What I do remember was the joy and gratitde of having a home library where I could research just about anything I wanted, just by doing a Google. Recently, my brother introduced me to AI chats, where the answers aren’t a list of data sources, but a comprehensive answer that includes the basic salient points. (Just googled to be sure I was using the right phrase–salient points: facts of a situation are the most important :o)

  17. I sure remember that sound! The first thing I had to do was set up an email address, and once other people started setting theirs up, I used AOL almost exclusively for emails. About a year later I started getting emails that were clearly intended for someone else. I contacted AOL, and they said that there was no way that someone else could have the same login ID, but obviously someone did, so I had to change my ID!

  18. Early experience with the internet: I don’t remember the first time I looked something up on the computer but I do remember sitting in an airport with an endless wait for an airplane . We were supposed to be visiting someone for the weekend and it wasn’t working. I was sitting there with my early phone, iphone and happened on the ap Guttenberg. I happly settled down to something by Jane Austen and though I never finished it and it wasn’t formatted to easily continue, it was enough.

  19. My first brush with computers was a DOS coding class, yes. DOS.
    The internet came to my office and enabled me to send medical claims to payers ELECTRONICALLY!!!
    No more printing thousands of insurance forms and mailing.
    It was a new world in 1990!
    First thing I did on the internet was AOL Chat…lol

  20. My eldest, as part of the Class of 2000, informed me that when she became a college freshman, I’d have to communicate with her via email – that’s how ‘all the parents are doing it!’ What could I do? I struggled to learn – motivated by the distance that would soon be between us for the first time. With every subsequent computer skill I had to master to remain connected both at home and at work, I remain a ludite at heart. The struggle is real!!

  21. As an accountant I liked having a spreadsheet program to analyze. In a large room filled with accountants, I was the only one with a personal computer. It was small-screened, somewhat noisy, heavy, large, and box-shaped. Most people thought it was very strange:)

  22. My first encounter with the internet was back in the days of DOS before gui interface for DOS machines. It was text only interface and one of the first things I looked up was the weather. I was fortunate enough to work at a University where they replaced typewriters with computers and the university was a hub for the world wide web.

    1. Your reference to DOS made me smile. My late husband observed that according to the movies, every computer used DOS, even when more sophisticated programming existed. Here’s a link to the top computer nerd films…you’ll see DOS plays a supporting role in a lot of them!

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