The Internet During The 1980s Was A Very Different Time


Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What was it like to be on the Internet during the 1980s? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.

I worked for a company that built modems in the 80s as the internet was just getting started. We had invented the error correcting modem which made transmission of accurate data possible.

At the time, many, if not most, modems worked at 110bps, or maybe, if you were lucky, 1200bps. Institutions could afford 2400bps which was considered lightning speed for financial transactions, but it was synchronous mode, not used by the internet. With error correction came the fight for speed, and you paid for it…a modem was a “buck a baud” or about 10,000 dollars to go 9600 bps.

We were making money hand over fist because people were now beginning to see the benefit of being connected. For example, a major oil refinery could now poll it’s gas station computers and get the receipt results over night rather than wait 3 days for them in the mail. They bought modems by the 1000s. And because they were perfect now, in the transmission of data, medical applications took off.

There were many new applications coming faster than we could build them and the technology just wasn’t there in many cases. For example, I was involved with a project where UPS wanted to connect a modem to a cell phone and put one of these on every truck so they could monitor where it was. Try as we might, we just couldn’t make the thing small enough, the cell phone (which was really new then) get decent coverage or work long term against the vibration of the truck and so on.

Nowadays you can get modems for 5 dollars that have 100 or 1000 times the capacity and are attached to everything, or use wifi or cellular radio, but we were breaking new ground then.

Chat boards and text games were coming into being and I had to monitor some of my staff who were addicted to these things and not doing work. It was a sign of things to come.

Sex chat on IRC was very very popular. My modems went into space on the shuttle and supported Operation Desert Storm in 1991. We were doing new and amazing things and we could see the world changing all around us as a result of our work. When the internet router finally made routing and ultra fast (10 mbps) speeds possible, the world really exploded because now everyone wanted to attach to Amazon and eBay and you needed a router or a modem to do that. Homes and small offices had modems, no one could afford a router. A 500 dollar router today could cost almost 100,000 dollars in 1992. Eventually, it became necessary to created modem banks and I worked on one of the first network managed modem banks.

It was an exciting experience to gather requirements from customers who only knew what the wanted but didn’t know what was possible. I had some of the best engineers in the world and we drove products rapidly out the door. Finally, we began to see theft and espionage were getting to be bigger problems and we had to build in security to protect people from hackers, which was a newer term then. In those days, modem dial-back systems were big and considered the premier way to avoid attacks.

No one really was paying attention to internal attacks then. it was all about authentication and authorization. We assumed data integrity with our modems and then when financial websites sprung up we had to implement non-repudiation because people would lose money online then claim they never made the transaction.

All the time, IP was growing as a protocol and modems were growing too, but the end was in sight. We could see that everyone would have routers and that modems just could not provide the speed, so eventually, modems with SLIP or IP interfaces slowly morphed into routers and modems collapsed as a real business.

Most of the modem giants are gone now — you can get built in modems for free from Intel or Rockwell, and our company was bought by Compaq and then by HP and we disappeared, but for the 10 or so years we were there, we changed the world.

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