Early ISPs and proto-ISPs

I vaguely remember uunet, pipex, and I did for a long time use clara.net but before that - I think - I had a quick try in the walled garden of Compuserve and then for a while used the revolutionary Freeserve - technically a phone service provider I think, starting in 1998, charging only for calls at a local rate and with no monthly fee. Here’s a TV advert from 2001:

From a BBC article:

Back in the mists of time (even as far back as 1998), it was quite normal for internet providers to charge a subscription of about £15 a month for dial-up access, which would be in addition to the cost of the phone calls.

For many people who wanted to get online but were wary of how much it would cost, help was at hand. Electrical shop Dixons started giving away CDs which would give access to its new creation, Freeserve.

Before long Freeserve became the biggest internet provider in the country; nearly every other supplier followed its lead and charged people only for the time they were online. It became, according to web folklore, the UK’s first internet brand.

And here’s another TV advert:

All that’s rather UK-centric - natural for me! - but Jimmy Maher covers the US scene in a series of articles. Here’s a Prodigy ad from 1988:

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Compuserve was both my first experience with a large online provider (previous to that I had used only BBSes) and my first experience with an Internet provider. I used a terminal (and later login scripts) to either go ppp or go internet (I don’t remember which; I think maybe the latter at first, using SLIP, then the former) and then plumb in an Internet serial gateway application (Trumpet something in Windows 3.1, or the command line programs in Linux).

Prior to that, my first Internet exposure was via a dial-in account at Miami University of Ohio, which had a local branch in the town in which I grew up where I Knew some People. As I remember that one, I dialed into a VAX machine running VMS (which I knew nothing about at the time), from which I executed a command that I had memorized to telnet (or rsh or something) to a nearby Unix machine. From there I could access gopher, mail, and the usual Unix facilities to connect to Internet sites. There was no IP back to my local machine from there, however. I do have some memory of trying to get SLiRP working, but I do not recall if it was or was not successful.

In those days all of the dial-in providers (while in the US they were likely local calls, which as discussed elsewhere, were free) were all metered, and tended to cost something like $5-10/hr as I recall. We paid monthly for the account, which came with a (small) allotment of time. I want to say it was $15-30/mo, and came with 3-5 free hours.

Unfortunately my memories of those times have grown rather fuzzy! That era was short lived for me, very soon afterward a local ISP opened up and we started getting our Internet service via the ISP. I don’t think we used Compuserve for more than a year or two.


I worked for a company who in the early 90s rented their own private 64K (bits per second!) connection from their Bristol office to their boston based US office. The US office had a 56Kbps connection to the Internet as it was at that time. This pre-dated ‘www’ when telnet, ftp and gopher ruled the roost…

After a while the UK office got their own line to a UK ISP (c1995 I think), and I subsequently went to work for that ISP for a few years. Very interesting times. That ISP was one of the founding members of LINX (London Internet Exchange - basically a big Ethernet switch at that point). I find it somewhat weird to now see that very switch in the Science museum in London… You had to have independent US connectivity to join LINX at that point from what I recall. We had 2 (and one was a massive 2Mb/sec!) and I recall the awe when the first ISP (Demon I think) got the first 45Mb/sec line over to the US.

Phone call charges were changing then and some ISPs (Notably Demon) were putting PoPs (Points of Presence) in the bigger cities and towns with local number for people to dial into with (usually muchly oversubscribed leased lines) back to HQ…

It was an interesting time indeed.



I got some free Compu$serve time when I purchased a new modem, so I tried it out for a while. I found it to be much less useful than the BBSs. But I think that Compu$erve was heading down by that time anyway.

I remember being on bix, and delphi, as well as trying out Prodigy and AOL.

Prodigy always seemed to be a service geared toward children. Everything was simplified to the point of being nearly useless.

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As I mentioned somewhere else, my first big network explosure was Quantum Link. I had some exposure to C-Serve as well because a few friends had it.

I didn’t switch to AOL when Q-Link was rebranded to AOL.

And of course in later college years we all had accounts on the schools Unix and VMS machines, and had terminal internet access.

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Another thing that occurred to me later this afternoon was the Compuserve servers on display in Columbus, Ohio, the original home of Compuserve.

There is a museum in Columbus called COSI (Center of Science and Industry) that is a well-executed hands-on science museum (and has been since at least the late 80s, that I know of). They have demonstrations, permanent exhibits, rotating exhibits, etc. all centered around science and technology. I remember playing with a Van de Graaff generator, making non-Newtonian fluids with corn starch, and various other activities there when I was a kid (I grew up about an hour and a half from there).

By the early to mid 90s (and perhaps before), one of the “exhibits” in the COSI building was a view into a working machine room that housed some portion of the Compuserve network. I was too young to understand the machines I was looking at, but given the time frame I suspect they were probably VAXen. A quick Internet search hasn’t turned up any information on the exhibit or the (presumed) partnership between COSI and Compuserve.

Those machines were probably the first minicomputers or mainframes I ever saw in meatspace.

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I think Compuserve used PDP-10 until the late 1990s.


I found this video last year:


I’ve read this other places as well, but Wikipedia explains that Compuserve started in part to get more use out of the PDP-10s.

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(And indeed, how many CompuServe users realised their IDs were octal?)