Internet history: Is Kushner confused or lied to in New Yorker article?
September 6, 2014 5:12 PM   Subscribe

In this week's New Yorker, there's an article about Christopher Doyon and Anonymous which asserts that Christopher, in the mid 1970s, bought a home computer kit, put it together, connected it to the internet, and started talking in chat rooms. This does not seem to line up with what I know of the history of the internet. Can anyone help clarify? Was Kushner just lied to by Doyon, and failed to do rudimentary fact-checking, or ... what?

I'm more familiar with the history of computing than most, so I wrote to Mr. Kushner:
Mr. Kushner,

In your article The Masked Avengers, you (for a nontechnical audience) write
he spent months figuring out how to ... hook it up to the Internet
and
online chat rooms were a revelation.
This would have been the mid-1970s, according to the article's timeline (the TMRC was founded in 1946, so he moved to Cambridge in 1980, so he was born in 1964).

In the mid-1970s, the Internet did not exist. Even the ARPANET only had a handful (less than a dozen) of sites that were not strictly military in nature.

There were absolutely no "online chat rooms" - IRC did not appear until 1988. (Bitnet Relay was around a bit earlier - 1985 - but never had more than a few dozen people using it. Pairs of individuals could talk to each other using 'talk' starting in 1983, but that's 1:1 communication.)

Finally, the build-your-own personal-computer kits available in the 1970s could not have been hooked up to the internet even if such a thing had existed at the time. They were machines like the Altair 8800 - you could program them to make their front-panel lights blink in interesting patterns, but that's about as complex behavior as you'd get out of them. They did not generally have keyboards or displays, and connecting them to networks - even as dumb terminals - was far beyond their capabilities.

Can you clarify?
He has not responded, but perhaps someone else can tell me what I might have missed here.
posted by dmd to Computers & Internet (43 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maybe he meant dial-up message boards, and he's just being a lazy stupid reporter.
posted by alms at 5:18 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I can't imagine how the article could be accurate — you seem to be clearly correct. All I can say is: check the letters section in the future — they might print your letter. I subscribe to the New Yorker and generally look at the letters, so I'll be on the lookout for this and I'll let you know if I do see your letter (or at least run a correction).
posted by John Cohen at 5:19 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ah, that's the word I couldn't remember: BBS, aka Bulletin Board System.
posted by alms at 5:19 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh wait, did you just write to Kushner, not the New Yorker? If so, well, try sending a letter to the New Yorker itself and see if they run your letter!
posted by John Cohen at 5:20 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, there was no internet. It was probably a BBS or maybe FidoNet which was internetworked yet not The Internet(tm).
posted by GuyZero at 5:22 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


Before the web and "internet chat rooms" and the like appeared, there were BBSes you could dial into with a modem. In the mid 90s, my friends and I used to chat online using telnet, a system that was thoroughly outmoded by that point. There were also listervs and usenet and things like that, which often were used as rudimentary "chatrooms" though they didn't update in real time.

Not sure any of that was around in the 70s, though?
posted by Sara C. at 5:23 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Not sure any of that was around in the 70s, though?

Not on any "kit based computer" of the time.
posted by RustyBrooks at 5:26 PM on September 6, 2014


Mid-70s would be very, very early to be dialing up to anything and chatting in real time with anyone. Most BBS and online system stuff started in the mid 80s. As everyone's said, the Internet didn't exist outside a few academic environments. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's very unlikely. Probably the subject misremembered dates or activities.

In 1975 the Altair 8800 was advertised in Popular Mechanics; that'd be a good guess for the computer he talks about building. Modems date to the early 70s and acoustic couplers would have been a reasonable technology to use for online chat.

Not sure what you could have dialed into, though. PLATO is a possibility.
posted by Nelson at 5:28 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Where in the article does it say this happened in the 1970s? It may not be portraying a linear timeline. He could have been 20 or so when this happened, no?
posted by sageleaf at 5:35 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


The below paragraph shows that it almost has to be a mistake:
When he saw an ad in Popular Mechanics for a build-your-own personal-computer kit, he asked his grandmother to buy it for him, and he spent months figuring out how to put it together and hook it up to the Internet. Compared with the sparsely populated CB airwaves, online chat rooms were a revelation. “I just click a button, hit this guy’s name, and I’m talking to him,” Doyon recalled recently. “It was just breathtaking.”
Even if some proto-internet applications existed in the (late?) 70s, you absolutely could not buy a computer back then and "hit this guy's name" to chat. Hell, circa 1990 when my family got our first PC, the whole thing ran on DOS and only certain programs even allowed the use of a mouse to click on anything. I remember doing research on library computers in the late 90s where there simply was no mouse at all; you navigated the software by hitting enter and/or backspace a lot.

The notion that the BBS and usenet systems of the Before Times would have been a sea of potential conversation partners compared to CB is also just plain silly. CB was a hot fad in the 70s, whereas when I was first experimenting with the internet in the early 90s you would talk to basically ANYONE who was willing, because the mere act of having access to a modem was kind of a big deal.

My guess is that Kushner isn't that tech savvy and conflated various different bits of research to create that monstrosity of a paragraph, and the quote that closes the para is probably referring to the late 80s or early 90s.
posted by Sara C. at 5:42 PM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


The New Yorker's famous fact-checkers dropped the ball on this one it looks like.
posted by gerryblog at 5:46 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am very familiar with the BBS scene of the 1980s and early 1990s. It definitely did not exist in the 1970s.
posted by dmd at 5:47 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


Well, I was at UMass in 1983-84 and we were all in a chat room that was written by students in our compsci program. I went home in 1984 (I think) over the summer and had a dial-up craptastic 300-baud modem and still was able to chat with people. They weren't strictly UMass people, because our friends gave out access accounts to their friends from other campuses. It was not a BBS.

Still, that was early 80s and not mid-70s.
posted by clone boulevard at 5:49 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


From the article: In 1992, at a Grateful Dead concert in Indiana, Doyon sold three hundred hits of acid to an undercover narcotics agent. He was sentenced to twelve years in Pendleton Correctional Facility, of which he served five.

Chances are he never experienced any "internet" until he got out of Pendleton, which would be 1997 at the earliest. The 1970s reference to "the Internet" in this article is definitely bogus.
posted by beagle at 5:53 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


No freaking way.

The Arpanet wasn't available to be dialed into. That technology didn't exist in the 1970's. In fact, AT&T threw seventeen different kinds of fits about even connecting the Arpanet computers into the public switched telephone network. IIRC it was all Point-to-Point data circuits, at a max speed of 1200 baud.

This book, Where Wizards Stay up Late, gives a very good account of that time period and the technology.

I personally engineered the data network that supported Prodigy when I worked at MCI in 1987. Even then, the modems were slow, and there were only BBS, no chat rooms. It was also $7 per hour, so unless Grandpa was also coughing up the dough....

No, it's all shit, poorly researched and...I'm kind of surprised.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:58 PM on September 6, 2014 [16 favorites]


In 1973 or late 1972, a friend of mine who was putting himself through school working for a national lab dragged an enormous terminal with a green CRT over to my house and we got on something he called the "ARPA net" and went via modem to various government and university sites around the country and mainly played games.

I remember especially playing a game called "Parry" hosted at Stanford. Parry commited suicide as I was trying to counsel him.

There were supposedly ways you could 'talk' to people but I didn't do that.
posted by jamjam at 6:07 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think you are reading this too literally. It states he was a CB enthusiast in the mid 70s - this is certainly possible. It states he bought a build your own computer kit (no date) - this could certainly have been possible in 1976. Apple II was introduced in 1977. TRS-80 in 1977. Vic 20 in 1980. Compuserve was available in 1979. Acoustically coupled modems existed at this time and the Hayes 300 baud modems were released in 1981.

So if you allow the BBS world this to be called the "internet" then mid seventies is only off by a few years at the most.

For the comment about "clicking". At the time you would "select" an option by tabbing or a similar keyboard comment. This would highlight a piece of text - you could then hit enter (or another key) to actually select that option. So sending a message to a person by highlighting and selecting their name was definitely possible...

Boy do I feel old now...:)
posted by NoDef at 6:13 PM on September 6, 2014 [13 favorites]


If you want to get pedantic, there were BBSes in the late 1970s starting with CBBS in 1978 ('sup Randy.). But even these systems were single-user. Nobody was doing multi-user systems until way later.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:35 PM on September 6, 2014


According to Wikipedia, CompuServe launched its CB Simulator in 1980.

The notion that the BBS and usenet systems of the Before Times would have been a sea of potential conversation partners compared to CB is also just plain silly.

I logged some time on CompuServe's CB Simulator starting in 1983, I think. My grandpa was a CB radio buff. And, yeah, I think I met more people and had more interesting interactions with them via CompuServe than I ever would have on the local CB airwaves. (I even chatted with one of the guys from Foghat. Foghat! Woo!) I don't know if you'd call that "the Internet," or if you could hook up to it from a build-your-own-computer (you'd need a 300 baud modem, right?), and it definitely wasn't around in the 1970s.

Anyway, yeah, this seems like the kind of thing the New Yorker fact-checkers should relish tearing down.
posted by Mothlight at 6:40 PM on September 6, 2014


I used chat rooms on CompuServe in 1980 and I'm fairly certain they didn't invent them. I first accessed CS via TYMNET/TELENET, which has been around for a decade at that point. "The Internet" nor IRC were not required to chat.
posted by rhizome at 6:45 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Unless you know this guy's personal history in and out, you are guessing at his age and when this happened, since the article specifies neither. It says he was a child in the mid 1970s. The year isn't specified. The age of "child" isn't defined. Then it says his mother died when he was a child and he used CB radio. Then it says when he was 14, he ran away and when he was 16, he joined computer counterculture. So, let's say he was 8 when he played with the radio. That means that maybe six years after that, he might've gotten that kit from his grandmother at 14. It might've been the 80s by then. Then he ran away and two years after that, he went to MIT. I am also guessing he simplified the process of being able to "click someone's name and talk to them." He was just comparing it to using CB radio transmissions to chat and pointing out how much easier it was. I doubt he was implying it was as easy as it is to do today. I would think the use of "internet" is also more simplifying, as the "internet" of the early days isn't really the same as today, but is a precursor. Based on the article, I think the internet chatting happened in the early 80s.

Hell, circa 1990 when my family got our first PC, the whole thing ran on DOS and only certain programs even allowed the use of a mouse to click on anything. I remember doing research on library computers in the late 90s where there simply was no mouse at all; you navigated the software by hitting enter and/or backspace a lot.

In the early 90s, you could absolutely click on someone name to chat with them, use mouses and use non-DOS operating systems. I have no idea what sort of PC your family had in the 90s or what library computers you were using, but my family was running one with a super early version of Windows. Most things did not run via DOS, or if they did, it was just a matter of typing in a command for it to run, and then the program would have a graphical UI for a mouse and everything was designed to be used with a mouse. In the early 1990s, I was chatting with my friends on AOL. You are mistaken.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:54 PM on September 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


The French Minitel network was up and running experimentally in the late 1970s and that has always sounded the most internet-like to me as far as the uses its users put it to. But that was dumb text terminals, definitely no clicking on a guy's name to chat with him, and plus was on the other side of the Atlantic. So yeah, I would have to say that the author of the piece is being handwavey and careless.
posted by XMLicious at 7:34 PM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


By the mid to late 70's you could dial into an Arpanet tip and have an on-line conversation with someone. The experience of being in a chat room & participating in a community would have more likely come on a BBS but it was possible on the Arpanet.
posted by rdr at 7:34 PM on September 6, 2014


Unless you know this guy's personal history in and out, you are guessing at his age and when this happened, since the article specifies neither.
The article specifies his age to the year, actually, as I stated in my letter, because it mentions the year the TMRC was founded.

This is confirmed here, just by googling "Christopher Doyon birthdate".
posted by dmd at 7:46 PM on September 6, 2014


The Heathkit H8/H9 (or later, the H89) was a computer that could have connected as a terminal to an online service in 1977. The prebuilt Apple II, the TRS-80 and the Commodore PET, or "semi kits" like the Superboard II were all released in 1977, too, and all of those could potentially get online with an acoustic coupler. While very uncommon, it certainly wasn't impossible for a curious kid with a generous grandmother to build a computer with a serial port and a video display in the mid/late 70s.

As rhizome wrote above, x.25 packet networks such as Tymnet and Telenet were online in the mid to late 70s, and could certainly have been used to connect to a time sharing system that had both had multiple users logged in and also allowed chat. Chat rooms originated in the early 70s, on timesharing systems like PLATO.

How would a 11 or 12 year old boy with an interest in CB radio and computing get onto timesharing systems in the 70s? My experience is that many of the early HAM radio operations were also interested in computer networks, and it doesn't seem ridiculous that a HAM, either at a university, a corporation, or one knowledgable about the x.25 networks, might have provided instructions for access.

It's egregious that Kushner wrote "hook it up to the Internet," which is clearly wrong, in place of "hook it up to a time sharing system," but that's almost certainly what he meant to say. Given how hard it is to explain the time sharing systems of the era even to those well-versed in the later BBS scene, well, perhaps one could forgive him.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 8:20 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is confirmed here, just by googling "Christopher Doyon birthdate".

Is that the same Christopher Doyon? It says he got an associates' degree from Ball State (in Iowa) in 1995, when he would've in fact been in prison in Indiana... I suppose it could've been via correspondence courses.

At any rate, if you did correctly work out the year of his birth (1964), and he ran away from home at 14 (1978), then he would've had to assemble the kit computer and connect to something prior to then. It certainly wasn't the internet, but could've been some kind of time sharing system. It seems like a bit of a stretch to me, however not impossible.
posted by axiom at 9:10 PM on September 6, 2014


I think OP is more confused than the author. The piece doesn't assert that he was online in the mid-70s.
"In the mid-nineteen-seventies, when Christopher Doyon was a child in rural Maine, he spent hours chatting with strangers on CB radio."
While Kushner is a tiny bit vague as to when Doyon got the computer kit and got online, I would hardly take that as a sign of his confusion or being lied to. It's long form journalism, not a police blotter.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:44 PM on September 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


This is confirmed here, just by googling "Christopher Doyon birthdate".
posted by dmd at 7:46 PM on September 6


Did you actually read that link?
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 10:04 PM on September 6, 2014


If he was born in '64 (this article has him as 47 in 2011, agreeing with dmd's use of TMRC as a reference) and the computer kit building happened before he ran away from home at 14 in 1978, then besides the things already mentioned, it could have been a NorthStar Horizon, a Cromemco Z-2, or an Apple I.

I suspect Sara C. has it: some other story about connecting a computer to a network and chatting got compressed in time with the kit-building story. MIT had for-real Internet by the time he got to Cambridge in 1980; they had a tradition of tolerating tourists; I think it's likely had dial-up access already. It doesn't seem outlandish he could have wangled an account on an MIT machine, and possibly even connected his original kit-built computer. (In around '81, I was dialing into a nearby university's machine out of the kindness of strangers.)
posted by Zed at 10:49 PM on September 6, 2014


I suppose it's possible he could have been dialing in to a timeshare computer at a university or somewhere using a kit-built terminal. The ADM-3A was sold as a kit in the 70s.
posted by zombiedance at 11:29 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thinking it's just a mix up. Don't think rural Maine had 911 yet there/then either.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 5:08 AM on September 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ball State is in Muncie, Indiana.

Seems like the article should have been more explicit in its details, because it does set off the smell test. But it also seems broadly possible. I think the editor made a poor judgment call here, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary explanation, at least.
posted by rikschell at 6:33 AM on September 7, 2014


I first accessed CS via TYMNET/TELENET, which has been around for a decade at that point

Hoo! Now my nostalgia is going overtime!

That's the other half of the Prodigy equation. Tyment was spun off of the McDonnell-Douglas private network and British Telecom ran it. When I worked with it, the backbone was 8 T-1s. That's 12.352M of bandwidth. That served all the Prodigy customers nationwide. At 1200 or 2400 baud apiece, it's conceivable. My job was to insure that there were no redundancies in the network. I laid a network map on the largest conference room table we had and manually plotted the route of the circuit, POP by POP, to insure that no circuits shares a POP. Painful.

Oh, and something failed EVERY night. Good times.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:17 AM on September 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sounds like sloppy editing, along with some conflation of disparate technologies. There is no way that that paragraph is literally true.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:27 AM on September 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Is that the same Christopher Doyon? It says he got an associates' degree from Ball State (in Iowa) in 1995, when he would've in fact been in prison in Indiana... I suppose it could've been via correspondence courses.

Ball State University is in Muncie, Indiana and has a correctional educational program with Pendleton.
posted by cooker girl at 7:27 AM on September 7, 2014


According to the article, Christopher Doyon attended Ball State. Please read the article. Plus, there's a photo of him! It's the same guy.
posted by dmd at 10:06 AM on September 7, 2014


> I think you are reading this too literally.

That's my take as well, though I'll certainly be interested to see what Kushner's response is (and if he doesn't write back, you should definitely send a letter to the editor).

> he's just being a lazy stupid reporter

Can we try to avoid being lazy stupid commenters? Just because somebody (may have) made a mistake does not justify that kind of attack.
posted by languagehat at 10:09 AM on September 7, 2014 [8 favorites]


I built a kit called the Mini Micro Designer to understand the circuitry. According to Wikipedia, it was the first single board computer and that was 1976. That kit did not have enough capability to go online. At the time of purchase, I was aware of IMSAI (check Wikipedia) as a possibility, and Apple started to get some profile at that time. So it is possible that a kit was assembled in the mid 70s.

As I remember that period, the timeline mentioned for going online, even with a BBS, seems a bit aggressive. I would have said early 80s.
posted by PickeringPete at 12:14 PM on September 7, 2014


I suppose it's possible he could have been dialing in to a timeshare computer at a university or somewhere using a kit-built terminal.

I graduated high school in 1974. I vaguely remember a terminal in one of my classrooms. It didn't have a screen, just a tractor-fed paper scroll that you and the terminal typed back and forth on. It was connected via a phone line to a computer system at the University of Minnesota. I never had occasion to use it myself. But I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me they were able to chat with U of M students over the system.
posted by marsha56 at 1:56 PM on September 7, 2014


Ball State University is in Muncie, Indiana

But they played Iowa in football yesterday, hence the confusion in my quick Google check. My fault. The timing makes sense, then, though it still doesn't explain how he would've been chatting with anyone prior to 1978 on a kit computer. I still think it's fishy, and either a misremembering or a conflation of two separate events (either in his own memory or in the reporter's interpretation of his words).
posted by axiom at 2:51 PM on September 7, 2014


"via a phone line"

To be a little clearer, I believe the terminal connected via an acoustic coupler.
posted by marsha56 at 3:52 PM on September 7, 2014


The structure of the paragraph Sara C. quotes absolutely implies he used the build it yourself computer to access chat rooms, but it doesn't say "He used this computer he built to access chat rooms where he could click a user name."

I would wager each of the sentences can be checked to be true on its own, but the sum of them being placed adjacent to each other is almost certainly false. The author of the article is almost certainly conflating two or three events, and the quote is almost certainly not Doyon talking about the computer he built.
posted by mzurer at 6:17 PM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


David Kushner replied!
Thanks for your comment. We noted the error in chronology. It should read that he went online later on a different computer.
posted by dmd at 5:55 AM on September 8, 2014 [11 favorites]


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