Going online – in 1986

Oh, this is indeed a nice find. Browsing through the video archives of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, I have found a short documentary (16 minutes) entitled Going Online – An Introduction to the World of Online Information. It was created by a company called Learned Information, Inc. (Medford, NJ) in 1986, and released on VHS. It’s a short overview about how to search information in online database systems, and I found it of great interest firstly because it explains how things worked before the Web, and secondly (but equally important) I think it’s a great visual impact for it features some computers and devices which were common (probably even state-of-the-art) at that time. Therefore I’ve taken some screencaps to share with you. You’re forewarned: this post is quite image-intensive, that’s why I’ve put most images after the cut. Enjoy!

The very first image is of a woman, probably in her living-room, connecting with her portable computer, a powerful Tandy TRS-80 model 100 connected via an acoustic coupler modem. (Fig. 1)

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And this is what appears right after the title: in the top left there’s what looks like an IBM PC/AT, but look in the bottom right corner… a Lisa 2 with ProFile hard drive!

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Fig. 4 — This man instead uses his trusty Apple ][ to connect from home (the narrator: The home computer enthusiast may use a service like CompuServe, or The Source, to play games, send messages to other people on the system or post messages on an electronic Bulletin Board.)

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Fig. 5 — The narrator: A businesswoman may use the Dow Jones information service to check current stock prices or to get information about a company in which she is considering investing. I remember those IBM keyboards. Completely mechanical, all metal, they weighed alone more than today’s laptop computers.

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Fig. 6 and 7 — A CompuServe information storage facility, I guess.

At this point the documentary starts talking about ‘how this online world is organised’, and patiently explains some terms and concepts that today we all take for granted: database, vendors, hosts, and the fact that end users need a terminal or microcomputer which can communicate with the host computer they’re calling. The narrator: Your connection may require a long-distance call, or you may be able to communicate through a less expensive telecommunications network, like TeleNet, UniNet, or Tymnet.

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Fig. 8 and 9 — Here the documentary is showing how to call and connect to one of the systems mentioned above.

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Fig. 10 — The narrator: But exactly what kind of information source will you be connected to at the host computer? There is a wide and ever-expanding variety: from electronic mail systems, to sources of numeric data (such as stock prices), to bibliographic files (or online indexes). Let’s look at bibliographic files. You are probably familiar with the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which indexes articles in popular magazines and journals. The company which produces this index also provides a computerised version through its online information service Wilsonline. In Fig. 10 you can see an user who has just connected to that service to look for bibliographic information (note again the date: March 18, 1986).

The documentary proceeds by illustrating an example of search made by Max Hunter, a businessman whose company is interested in buying several IBM PCs. He is interested in looking for some articles about business software for those computers. The narrator: Before he links up with the electronic information chain, Max does a little planning. He starts by writing down the exact subjects of his search. Next, he has to choose one or more appropriate databases. Max starts with ABI/Inform because it indexes a wide range of business literature. He then checks to see if the vendor which he normally uses provides access to ABI/Inform.

So, while today looking up something on the Web is a matter of opening a browser and putting the search terms in the search field and you instantly get thousands of results in Google, Yahoo!, Bing or other search engines, 24 years ago the process, as you can see, was a bit longer and required planning before even being able to connect with an online database.

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Time to search, finally!

Fig. 11 – The narrator: A search can be done with what is called a ‘dumb’ terminal…

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Fig. 12 — The narrator: Max prefers to use a microcomputer for his searching because it allows him to capture the results of his search right in his computer.

Hey, guess what is the microcomputer Max uses: an Apple //c! And what a nice office system, with big monitor, external 5.25″ floppy drive, printer and modem. I like Max already.

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Fig. 13 — Close-up of the floppy drive. Max is inserting a floppy with the communication software. The label of the floppy proudly states “Modem Manager – Communications Package”.

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Fig. 14 — Max turns the Apple modem on.

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Fig. 15 — Max connects to the chosen service.

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Fig. 16-19 — Max starts his search. The documentary here explains the various commands and boolean operators. The ?S is the search prompt.

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Fig. 20 — The numbers before the keywords are the results obtained for every keyword or group of search terms. There are 2,771 results for International Business Machines and 7,265 results for IBM or International Business Machines.

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Fig. 21 — The search is refined. Max takes the results of the first search (S1) and adds another keyword, microcomputer with a wildcard (?) so that it means ‘search all words starting with microcomputer.

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Fig. 22 — The second search (S2) gives fewer results (1,563). Max is narrowing down his search!

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Fig. 24 — Further narrowing down the search finally gives a reasonable number of results (11).

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Fig. 25 — The search has been shown in several steps, but it could have been executed in a single statement like this.

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Fig. 26 and 27 — Max is reviewing the results. I smiled at these two articles’ titles.

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Fig. 28 — Here you have an idea of the final cost of such search. The estimated total session cost is said to be $7.06. If you look some lines above, you can make out the duration of the session: 0.043 hours, which is 2.58 minutes. Seven dollars for less than three minutes of connection! And it’s 1986. And the full text of the articles Max found was not available online (or rather, the service Max chose did not provide the full text, but only an abstract) — he had to go to the library to read copies of the articles. As you can see, we made quite the progress in these last twenty years.

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Fig. 29-31 — Other examples of database services and search tools.

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Fig. 32 — The narrator: Gateways, like EasyNet, are another new development. These are intermediary computer systems which provide access to a variety of databases from different vendors and save you the difficulty and expense of setting up your own accounts. Of course, at a price: note again the outrageous costs of this service.

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Fig. 33 — Wow, CD-ROMs! The narrator: These small [optical] discs with their incredibly large storage capacity make it possible for you to have your own database connected to, and searchable with, a microcomputer in your home or workplace.

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Fig. 34-36 — End credits.

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2 thoughts on “Going online – in 1986

  1. Figure 32 shows the Monaco font, and was undoubtedly produced with a Macintosh.

    In Figure 3, the computer in the top right looks like an Apple //c.

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