He didn't get where he is today by stealing somebody else's catchphrase.


If you can, cast your mind back to 1990. What were you up to? Perhaps you were making a fondue or were stuck under the bonnet of your Mondeo? Maybe you were hauling the rotting carcass of a cabinet minister into a woodland grave. Who knows? Me? I was just starting college to study a computing course. It’s boring in comparison to making a shallow grave for Norman Lamont I know, but we can’t have all the fun can we?

In 1990 I was a fully fledged geek, albeit one that had made a few mistakes. I had (erroneously) decided to take A-Levels in subjects I couldn’t really care less about. Unsurprisingly, the end result was that I didn’t care less about my results. I flunked. It was time to go back to the drawing board and do something that I felt passionate about. I was a geek and I was passionate about computing. Yes, this was my true calling - ones and zeros and shit.

Looking back, I wish I’d done it earlier. I remember starting and being a geek surrounded by a room full of other geeks - and we could be as geeky as we liked without reprisal. It was bliss. There are not many places where you could get away with that now. I was studying in an environment where I would be accepted - something of a dream after many years of being “that odd one”.

Not only did I have acceptance from my newly found peers, but I also had a bit of caché, for want of a better phrase. I was a geek with a girlfriend of all things, an uncommon thing in geek circles - because after all, we’re a bit socially inept, aren’t we? She was studying on another course at the same establishment, so not only could I tell my (mostly male) colleagues that I had a girlfriend, they could even see her. The downside was that I became a victim of her cruel hairdressing experiments, though on reflection this was a minor negative.

The other string to my bow (*kyukk*) was that I was turned into a bit of a hacker. Computing in the early 90s was decidedly 16-bit (unless you were an Acorn owner, but that’s another story entirely) and you either fell into the Atari or Amiga clan. I was in the Atari clan and had just about grasped the concept of how to use a disassembler and debugger, as well as write my own demos (yet again, another story) and it allowed me to hack the odd game or two and remove the copy-protection. It’s odd what gets you status as a teenager. Yes, I confess, I was an apprentice digital criminal.

I was an enthusiastic student, with a keenness that would have been the envy of many. After the cock-up that was my A-Levels I was adamant that such a mistake wouldn’t happen again. I kept my A-Level failure statements on the wall behind my computer as a reminder and threw myself into my work, looking at ways in which I could broaden my horizons. As luck had it, there were two ideal projects for me to get to work on. The first was a neglected BBS (appropriately named “Game Over” ) and the second a cranky IBM AIX 6150 tower. Within not too long, I became a SysOp and a SysAdmin and my journey into the early world of the internet began.

I started work on the AIX box*. Chances are that you’ve probably not used an IBM 6150. It was a rather wonderful piece of hardware which looked a bit like an obese PC. The thing had a whopping 60MB of storage (although the hard-disk disk sounded like a steel drum sometimes) and we were blessed with a tape drive to accompany it. Backing up everything took time - pretty much a complete day. Most SysAdmins will probably tell you that hasn’t changed even now.

The entire operating system was on a small mountain of 5.25 inch floppy disks. The entire installation was a laborious process and sods law would always dictate that the last disk would have media errors on it. Despite this, I taught myself how to install AIX, PTFs, X-servers, Wumpus (a marvellous game, back in the day), mailboxes and support for TCP/IP. That bit came on just two floppies. I doubt it would now.

In not too long, I’d networked most of the lab and connected terminals through the Token Ring interface - the importance of which didn’t hit me until about five years later, when I was doing my placement for a business commerce company. They were starting to branch out into internet commerce. By accident, I’d inadvertently stumbled into the right technologies before their time came.

With my AIX terminals running (despite certain other students attempts to hack it and bugger it up), I then turned my attention to the BBS. It was all a bit crusty and needed a way to draw new users. I updated the BBS software, added an online game (Tradewars, if you’re curious), a software library and connected the thing up to FidoNet. We had a window into worldwide e-mail, just about. Getting a reply to a sent message took days.

You’re probably asking what the point of all this techno-rambling is. I’d answer by saying that it’s all history. This is a time when the internet was in its infancy, stuff was exciting and invariably a challenge to set up. We now have smartphones with processing power and storage that dwarfs what was in that 6150 back in the day - but it was fun. We were doing something new and for want of a better phrase, cutting edge and alien. I’ve never known a better time in I.T. - from my perspective, anyway.

It’s strange to think that we were at the beginning of the Internet in the UK, that the technologies we were just starting to use would be commonplace to all and sundry in a few decades time. My son, just one, will not remember a time when the Internet didn’t exist. I will bore him with the same stories that I’ve just bored you with - just like my grandparents remember a time before telephones or television. Each generation has it’s own technological revolution and no doubt he will bore his children with stories of flying cars or teleportation.

Finally, I did a little bit of research and discovered that there are still lots of BBSes still in existence, although the connection method has now changed. You won’t be using your squeaky modem to connect, but you can still do it from telnet in a command prompt. I connected to one last night. I’ve never felt so nostalgic about some colour blobs and plain text. Amazingly, you can still play Tradewars. It’s like I’ve gone back about 20 years.

I would encourage you to have a look. It’ll look decidedly low tech, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about, but it’ll remind you where a lot of the internet started from. And once it’s done that, you won’t whinge about the quality of your connection or take it for granted again.

* You see what I did there? That’s a joke, that is.
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