Age Shall Not Weary Them

I’ve been trying to remember the very first time I went online to the Internet.

I started thinking about this when I read about the recent passing of Olive Riley, a 108 year old woman who regularly wrote on her Blogger account and was known as the World’s Oldest Blogger.

Olive passed away this week on the NSW Central Coast, just a few months before her 109th birthday, God bless her. In the newspaper article about her passing, her Grandson notes how she was regularly communicating with people from as far away as America and Russia.

I suppose I take for granted just how easily we can communicate with people from far away places. A quick glance at the Live Feed widget on this very blog shows me that in the last few hours I’ve had hits from India, America, Norway, Canada, the UK and of course all over Australia. A quick peruse through my open Skype contact list shows a similar global diversity, with people listed there from virtually every continent except Antarctica. It’s all too easy to take this for granted these days but the fact that we can connect like this, sending our little binary bits flying around the planet in mere milliseconds, is still a pretty amazing thing when you stop and think about it.

So, when was the first time you ever saw the Internet?

For me it must have been early 1995. I remember it well because I had a student whose father worked for the company that was contracted to do the 3.5″ floppy disk duplication for the original Microsoft Windows 95 release. (Yes, remember when operating systems could be installed using floppy disks?) This student was a very smart, very geeky kid (he taught me to code in HTML) and he came to school one day and said “dad wants to know if you’d like to see the Internet”… (apparently I had been trying to teach something about this new thing called the Internet and he thought it was clear I had no idea what I was talking about, so wanted to set me straight). I said yes of course.

So I went in and visited his dad at his work, had a look at the disk duplication facilities for Windows 95, and then he took me to his cubicle and typed a few weird UNIX commands into a terminal. A few seconds later, some more text appeared on the screen in response. Apparently it had come from Singapore, where an FTP server had responded to his request and was allowing him to browse through some files. Although it was all UNIX command-line stuff (real men use Shell script!) I was fascinated by the idea that a computer in Sydney was communicating with a computer in Singapore, right there before my very eyes!

Not long after that, I wanted to give it a go myself so I managed to hook a modem up to an LC575 Mac, work my way through the setup of the required TCP/IP stacks, and somehow got it connected. I was so excited to be able to browse the Internet (not the WWW, mind you!) using a text-based browser called Lynx. I somehow found my way into the University of Minnesota library and browsed the catalog. I thought it was so exciting and I was just fascinated that I could send these little packets of data all the way across the Pacific and back.

But that was not my first foray into going online. It was maybe a year prior to that that I’d discovered eWorld. Ah, eWorld! If you never saw it, eWorld was Apple’s first attempt at creating an online community. It had – as you’d expect from Apple – a pretty, graphical interface that used the metaphor of a town, called eWorld, to let you wander from place to place. You could send emails by clicking on the Mail Centre, read the news by going to the News Stand, visit the Leisure Pavilion to find out about health and lifestyle news and so on. eWorld was very cool (and very expensive… it cost me $US10/hour to use, paid out of my own pocket, and I used it with kids in my classroom) but it was essentially a closed community. This was not the Internet, but rather a private protected community for Apple users.

However, in 1995, Apple updated eWorld to include a few new buildings and a picture of a highway going by the town. This highway was labelled “Internet”, and you could click on it to take the fast lane out of the safe haven of eWorld and out into the big bad unknown world of the Web. It was the wild west, highly unregulated, hard to find stuff, very random, but very interesting and a lot of fun to explore. It had plenty of weird places to visit… I remember the first real website I ever saw was the Virtual Cemetery, a list of obituaries for people who has died. I can’t find it anymore of course, although there seems to be plenty of others to take its place.

It’s hard to believe that this was only 13 years ago. Just 13 short years ago, there was no real Internet to speak of, at least nothing that you’d recognise as the Internet of today. No online banking. No eCommerce. No online dating. No Amazon, no Google, no eBay. No Web 2.0 and not even Web 1.0. We’ve come an awful long way in a very short space of time. Next time one of your high school students makes a joke about your age, remind them that the World Wide Web was not invented when they were born. Puts it in perspective doesn’t it?

And as for Olive, I hope she rests in peace in some Virtual Cemetery somewhere. At 108 she still had a sense of curiosity and wonder at being able to communicate so easily with others around the world.

She sounds like one pretty cool old lady.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 Age Shall Not Weary Them by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

8 Replies to “Age Shall Not Weary Them”

  1. What an interesting post Chris. I love the insight into the early days of the internet. I remember buying our first computer in 1996, but I was nowhere near anything like Apple’s eworld. I was still busy marvelling at the wonders of Encarta!
    Jenny.

  2. I never knew about eWorld but I remember when it became possible as a student to have a Uni email account through some sort of dos-prompt interface… it seemed amazing!

  3. My first computer in the very early 80’s resembled a tape recorder which you hooked up to the TV. the programs were contained on a cassette tape.. to load the program you pressed “play” on the tape recorder. At school you could make a program on puch cards that you had to send off to be compiled.
    My mother this year has her first computer, someones cast off… at the age of eighty. If only she could master turning it on…. let alone navigate with a mouse!

  4. This is an interesting narrative – just how ‘cool’ was Olive! I will really get my students to read your story! For those of them in Year 7, the internet has been with them since they were born – will they be blogging when they are 100?
    Thanks for your insight!

  5. Chris,

    My first online experience would have been connecting directly with dial-up BBSes and interacting with other users connected at the same time. In 1994 I was working at a job where we were getting business referrals through something called “Prodigy”. At the time Prodigy was a bigger online provider than America Online; I tried both of them out and those were my first true experiences on the world wide web. There was no local internet provider so I had several months of very large telephone bills from spending hours connected over long distances just to go online with Netscape Navigator.

    I can remember adding network adapter cards to PC’s running MS Windows 3.1 around 1993. That OS didn’t even know what a network was, let alone the “Internet”. We had to install a 3rd party TCP/IP stack (via floppy) so those machines could go online. We thought Win95 was pretty cool since it was ready for networking.

    For a while, I was an avid user of IRC chat. I thought it was really amazing to be able to communicate with others around the world in real time. (I still do.) While I love the blogosphere, I sometimes do miss the real-time chats I used to do.

    You might find it interesting that I was just using the Lynx browser today on my Linux system. I still like to use it from time to time to test usability of websites for text only browsers. If you can’t navigate with Lynx, people using assistive technologies can’t navigate either. (Haven’t tried out edublogs.org on Lynx. Will have to try it.)

    Great post! I like looking back on how far we’ve come. Sometimes, it really doesn’t seem that far at all and other times it seems like we are light-years ahead of where we were.

  6. Chris, Mike Rubbo, Olive Riley’s scribe, here.

    Like others who’ve left comments, I enjoyed the way you segued away from Ollie’s blog into your first memories of the internet. It’s a bit like, where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot? It’s that important, isn’t it?

    I know exactly the first moment that Eric Shackle proposed to me helping Olive to blog. My reaction, “what’s a blog?” then finding out, explaining the same to Ollie, all followed in quick succession.

    Then I was struck by what Neil Maxwell wrote above, namely about showing Ollie’s blog to his students. Can you make sure that he gets what I’m about to report as to where we are going with the blog, now that she’s gone?

    There’s a girl in upstate NY, M…, 14 years old, who wrote back to tell me she’s reading all of Olive’s posts from the very beginning!

    I was rather impressed and even more so by her feisty comments. M was revolted of course by Ollie having all her teeth pulled when young, and on the same day! How could she do that?

    I enjoyed M’s curiosity as to what was an Aussie meat pie, to which both Ollie and I were addicted. It got even more confusing when I told M our pies contained mince which to her meant chopped fruit and to us means ground meat of course.

    I suggested to M that if she wanted to organize her responses in terms of differences she saw in culture and time, I’d post them on the blog in the hopes that they might encourage other kids to discover the delights of Ollie.

    As to why M was especially taken, I think I’ve found a clue. She tells me she lives near the Amish. Anyway this might help Neill with his students if M does come online, which will be soon.

    It’s sad that Ollie’s following was much larger overseas, esp. in the US, than here. That’s due to the fact that the Aust. media decided, until she died, to have a grumpy response to the story

    “She’s not the oldest blogger because she doesn’t type,” sort of thing. Consequently Australians were denied knowing about their wonderful compatriot till her death, at which point she was reported and apparently suddenly acceptable as the oldest blogger.

    ABC regional radio was always good. But our broadsheets did not want to know about her, nor big city radio or TV.

    The fact that Jay Leno wanted on his show, that she was on the BBC and Good Morning America, cut no ice with our media.

    Ollie did not care of course. But I did. Her story was/is capable of doing so much good in terms of inspiring older folks not to be scared of the internet, and in terms of pushing nursing homes to get computer and internet facilities. They’ll have to face this soon because their upcoming intakes will be compter literate and demand it.

    We offered free internet to Ollie’s nursing home but there was some bureaucratic stumble and it never happened.

    Secondly, she was very interested in what Epuron will be building near her home town, Broken Hill. They are due to start next year on the biggest wind farm in Australia next, 2 billion dollars worth of slender propellors, slowly spinning in the red heart.

    We are so far behind in this technology. I’ve just been to Europe and you see the turbines everywhere there. I had the idea that her interest could be turned to benefit of wind energy. Epuron could make her a patron and that would weirdly inspirational, a 108 year old worried about the future energy needs of her country.

    Epuron was indeed interested in hooking up with Olive and if death had not intervened, it might have been. The fact that she was not high profile in Aust. did not help of course.

    That’s my one regret, that Aussies did not know her as they should have. Never too late I guess.

    Cheers, Mike the scribe.

  7. Mike, thank you so much your response. I really appreciate it. (Of course I appreciate all of the commenters on this blog, but your post was especially poignant in light of your close affiliation with olive herself) It’s shameful that we in Australia don’t recognise one of our own, or worse yet, try to make claims on them after they are gone.

    Thanks for your comment…

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