What Is Your Earliest Memory of the Internet?

What is your earliest memory of the internet? The Web Archiving Team and our colleagues in the Digital Content Management Section asked this question during an open house for attendees of the American Library Association’s annual conference, where we had a table set up to share information about our work. As an ice breaker, we asked everyone who visited our table to write down their earliest memory of the internet on yellow post-it notes, and by the end of the night, we had over a hundred. 

Five Library of Congress staff members posing at a table in the Jefferson Building

DCMS members present at the Open House, including (from L-R) Abigail Shelton and Carlyn Osborn representing By the People, Hana Beckerle and Kate Murray representing FADGI, and Lauren Baker representing the Web Archives

The question is a good starting point for thinking about how the internet has a history– chronologically, the answers ranged over fifty years from ARPAnet to YouTube, and the internet that people remember from their childhood or young adult years is often quite different from the internet they use today. The question also revealed the varied ways in which the internet is enmeshed with our personal histories, tied to memories of spending time with family, forming social connections, learning new things, working, and having fun. While the internet is constantly changing, your stories reinforced why it is important that we preserve aspects of our digital past.

We loved hearing your stories, reminiscing and laughing with you. Here are some of the memories people shared with us…

The internet went through many transformations.

Post-it notes from attendees with written responses that include Lynx, Mosaic, Arpanet, Telnet, Usenet, BBS, Prodigy, Dialog, Netscape, and Compuserv.

We were surprised to meet two early adopters of the internet that remembered using Arpanet in the military and at NASA. Arpanet, considered to be the forerunner of the internet, was invented in 1969 by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the United States Department of Defense. Three visitors also remembered using Telnet, which was developed that same year. Other names we heard were Compuserv, Mosaic, Prodigy, Lynx, Bulletin Board System (BBS), and Netscape. How many of those do you remember? 

Many visitors also pointed out that you used to have to go somewhere to use the internet, like the public library, the computer lab at college, or an office building. This is in stark contrast to today, when many people carry smartphones in their pocket and feel that the internet is an almost constant presence in their lives. 

Do you remember when the internet looked like this?

An Interface Message Processor

This Interface Message Processor, the equivalent of today’s routers, was the first node in the ARPANET network. It is now on display at UCLA. Photo credit: Andrew Adams, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Or how about like this?

Bulletin Board System (BBS) displayed on the screen of an Amiga 1000 computer

Bulletin Board System (BBS) on an Amiga 1000. Photo credit: Blake Patterson, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The internet was noisy.

The most common memory, by far, was the shrill, screeching noise of a dial-up modem. In the 1990s and earlier, the internet wasn’t something that you could connect to instantaneously– it required logging in and waiting while your modem dialed another modem over the telephone line. Did you know that the screeches and staticky sounds that followed weren’t just noise? They served a purpose  in communicating data via sound waves that enabled the modems to make a connection. A detailed chart created by programmer Oona Räisänen, breaks down the entire nineteen second process. The sound could be irritating, but for some it now inspires a feeling of nostalgia.

Do you still have the sound of dial-up stuck in your head two decades later? Is there another tech sound you miss hearing? (It might be in the Museum of Endangered Sounds.)

Fifteen post-it notes that describe the sounds of AOL and dial-up internet

The internet required patience– and sometimes negotiation.

Not only did people have to wait to log on to the internet, many people also remembered it taking a long time to load. We heard stories of waiting between fifteen to forty-five minutes to load a webpage or download a single image. Many households only had one phone line to use for dial-up, so people recall getting knocked off the internet when a family member picked up the phone, fighting with brothers and sisters over whose turn it was to use the internet, or having to negotiate with parents who needed to make a phone call. 

Did you ever have an interaction like this one?

Post-it note with text that reads: "Goodbye" - AOL | Me: MOOOOM! | Mom: I HAVE TO USE THE PHONE

Or did you ever make a face like this while waiting forever for a page to load?

Post-it note that reads "Dial-up Internet" and has a sketch of a face with clenched teeth

The internet came in the mail

AOL promotional disc

An AOL CD in the Internet Archive’s collection

Others recall first encountering the internet in the form of AOL free trial floppy discs or, more commonly, CD-ROMs. These promotional discs were part of a direct mail campaign to introduce the internet to a wider audience of people, many of whom had little or no knowledge of what the internet was or what it could do. At a time when people paid for internet usage by the hour, these CD-ROMs offered a number of hours for free, and advertised the internet with lines like, “Hook up to a word of fun and excitement!” The approach worked, as AOL grew from 200,000 accounts to over 22 million, many of them new internet users.

You can view 380 of these discs in the Internet Archive’s AOL CD-ROM Collection. For people who felt bombarded by these discs in the 1990s and probably threw them away a long time ago, it might also be surprising to know that one is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

The internet helped you connect.

For many people, their first memory of the internet was using instant messaging to chat with friends. A lot of visitors remembered AOL Instant Messanger (AIM), introduced in 1997, and a few remembered earlier chat services like Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and ICQ (derived from the phrase “I Seek You”). Instant messenger was a rite of passage for some, as they waited impatiently for their parents to decide they were old enough for an account. Having an account also meant being able to pick a username. Abigail Shelton, a Digital Collection Specialist at the Library, remembered “As silly as it sounds…it seemed like a big and exciting decision–what would you choose? How would you represent yourself in a catchy and clever way?”

Post-it note that reads "Wanting an AIM account in middle school and not being allowed," followed by a frowning face

But the internet didn’t just connect you to friends– our visitors also recalled the internet being a connection between family members. Several people remembered first learning about the internet from a more knowledgeable family member or teaching another family member how to use it. A few also remembered using the internet alongside siblings to do things like play games or look up trivia when there was only one computer with internet access in their home. Also, in one of our favorite memories, a visitor remembered receiving “singing e-greeting cards from grandma.”

Post-it note that reads "singing e-greeting cards from grandma"

The internet helped you to learn–and have fun.

For many, their first memories of the internet involved school, research, or educational activities, like “searching for lizard pictures,” “using [the] ‘Dogpile’ search engine during a Science Olympiad competition,” playing Oregon Trail, or using Encarta Encyclopedia online. Others first encountered the internet in college, before having the internet at home was common. Just as many also used it for fun to play games or to look up information about your favorite television shows. Web Archiving Team member Lauren Baker remembers learning about the internet from her mother, a fellow librarian. She remembered checking out books like The Internet Kids and Family Yellow Pages, to get ideas on sites to visit, and she recalls that the internet seemed much smaller back then– like something you could summarize in a book or track via lists of the “newest websites of the week.”

Post-it notes that include memories of Oregon Trail, Encarta Encyclopedia Online, Dog Pile, Jump-Start games, Library Britannica, and other educational uses of the internet

What’s the first website you remember visiting? Can you find it in our web archives?

For some, the internet has always been a part of their lives.

Some of the younger visitors to our table told us that they didn’t have any defined “earliest memory” of the internet because the internet had always been a part of their lives. And this made us feel very old. 

At the Library, the Web Archives have preserved over two decades of internet history, and we continue adding new content to the collection every month. Reading visitor responses and hearing your stories gave us a new perspective on why the work we are doing to archive the web is important and meaningful. If you want to learn more about why we archive the web, check out “Why Web Archiving?“, a virtual panel the Library held in May. During the event, which you can also watch on video, library subject experts and researchers offer additional reasons for preserving the web and describe how our web archives are created and used.

What about you? What’s your earliest memory of the internet?

20 Comments

  1. Otto Marten
    July 27, 2022 at 9:35 am

    early 90s, working for a gov agency where national “network” was the goal, then suddenly there was the internet and dos… kc metro missouri library system, mid-continent, had 15+ libraries scattered across the suburbs and, tho you could use inter-library loan requests, i would travel to several in a day to scour the stacks. then, kc library digitized their card catalog and put it on an internet dos platform that i could connect to from work. game changer. didn’t matter what was on the shelf in any branch library, i could request it and have it sent to my local branch. i’m 70 and have a newspaper published photo of me at the library with an armful of books at 4 yo. then, oclc gave me a huge “personal” library, huge. looking for every book and music recording be available from my mouse.

  2. Eden Kuhlenschmidt
    July 27, 2022 at 9:48 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed this – my first memory was a school link to a state data site that provided information on careers – the information was sent to a special computer/printer hookup. After that my earliest use was in creating ‘Hot Links” to credible sources that supported various classroom activities. In the beginning of the internet years – our in library fax machine actuallly had a bigger impact in terms of technology as it allowed us to communicate directly to the children’s department of the local public library to request ILL/or lookups for data/planning sessions together.
    Memories of a retired school librarian.

  3. Steve Olson
    July 27, 2022 at 10:02 am

    working at AT&T in 1990 i stumbled across some USENET NEWS feeds including Bell Labs discussions of voice recognition; later interactions with CompuServe and Prodigy got me access to Gofer, Wais and FTP which was as high-tech as it got in those dial-up days!

  4. Jenny
    July 27, 2022 at 10:54 am

    Flirting with IT guy – who is now my ex-husband.
    He was under the DIALOG workstation (printer and computer in one? forgot what it was called).
    Having him set me up on BITNET to chat. Subscribing to Morris Dancing Discussion List and GovDoc-L. Oak, then Pine for email.
    Archie & Veronica, FTP
    (Then) husband having to drive in blizzard to reset the campus network. Eventually having dial up access at home.
    And then Netscape! WOW! That was as amazing as movies on laser disk. COLOR! Library of Congress was a favorite site – still is.

  5. Stephanie Eller
    July 27, 2022 at 12:07 pm

    AP wire over dialup modem on Macs at Kinko’s.

  6. Theresa
    July 28, 2022 at 8:13 am

    First download – going to the Smithsonian and looking at a mineral and downloading a picture. It only took 20 minutes! We were absolutely thrilled. The memory is still vivid in my mind.

  7. Jake
    July 28, 2022 at 10:14 am

    My mother took an evening class offered through the high school from which I graduated, and the instructor of that class came to my parents’ house to hook me up. For whatever reason all others in the household had Internet/email access but I did not. We originally thought it had something to do with the screen reader I used at the time, and if memory serves me that was indeed part of it. The guy took forever to come over, but as we eventually found out that was due to family issues. When he returned from out of the country and came over, he did not charge us. He got me all set up and I remember being super happy. At the time I used JAWS for Windows from Freedom Scientific, and accessibility of the information super-highway was rather limited. Fast-forward to now. I am using VoiceOver on a Mac and an iPhone, and it’s so awesome to see how far we have come both in terms of accessibility and computing in general. I am still met with the occasional hiccup, but isn’t that true of everything and everyone these days? Yes indeed, my iPhone is equipped with BARD Mobile and I love it.

  8. Susan
    July 28, 2022 at 10:45 am

    My first memory is people downloading silly graphics and pictures of crazy wedding dresses, so I guess the Internet has had a multitude of frivolous uses for decades. I also remember my husband downloading a lot of stupid stuff from his classmates. We were students at the time, and I couldn’t understand that using the internet was free beyond the utility fees – there were still charges for individual long distance calls back then – and I was so nervous that he was wasting our small budget on these things.

  9. Sean
    July 28, 2022 at 12:37 pm

    I used to play a MUD called LORD on a BBS out of Long Beach, California called the Moon of Endor. It also had Doom II and Duke Nuken 3D brackets (like college basketball) and a message board where I would talk about installing DII mods with other nerds. I got in trouble with my mother for playing a DII match with a kid in Canada because I ran up a $50 phone bill…

  10. Robert Brammer
    July 28, 2022 at 1:10 pm

    Great post! I had an old Commodore Amiga 500 that I got right after Commodore collapsed in 1994. I was able to find a modem, a TCP/IP client, and a basic web browser for it, and connect it to the internet.
    Before that I had used a Commodore 64 at a friend’s house to connect to Quantum Link, which later became America Online.

  11. Tracee Haupt
    July 28, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    The Web Archiving Team and I have really enjoyed reading everyone’s memories. Please, keep them coming!

    Since you have all been so generous in sharing your memories, I will share mine. My first experience using the internet was AOL, and I remember a lot of the same things that were shared with us, like the screeching sound of dial-up and having to negotiate with family members over who got to use the phone line. The first website I remember visiting is the “Kids Only” section of the AOL homepage.

  12. Rosemary D. Lombard
    July 28, 2022 at 2:54 pm

    My first vivid memory of the Internet was in a Stanford computer guy’s office with several invited Data Center employees, including me. He connected with Mosaic and took us–quickly!–to a museum site (le Louvre?) and showed photo after photo of the museum’s collection in high resolution and color. He was excited; so were we.

  13. Sharad
    July 28, 2022 at 7:24 pm

    I remember the dial-up modem noise first. I was familiar with the “premise” of email before I learned about Prodigy, AOL, CompuServe, etc. A few friends had access to those via their parents, and I became more familiar with them and Netscape, Mosiac, etc. around 1993 or 1994.

    1995 was a big year because that was my first year of college and the introduction of Windows 95, which basically copied the most appealing features from Macintosh. Also had to learn how to install an Ethernet board, which bypassed the need for annoying dial-up modems and improved both the quality of the connection and speed.

  14. Joe Puccio
    July 29, 2022 at 7:20 am

    Before the “World Wide Web” and browsers, there was the Gopher protocol. At the Library of Congress, it was branded as LC MARVEL – the Library of Congress Machine-Assisted Realization of the Virtual Electronic Library. Read more in this 1993 article – //www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/93/9316/marvel.html.

  15. Fazia Rizvi
    August 2, 2022 at 12:02 pm

    I remember watching a classmate in high school (in 1986) use a dial up modem to access BBSes. I was really interested in this sort of thing and by the time I was in college in 1988 I was able to access what was then the Internet via accounts on University of Houston’s VAX/VMS machines. Alvin Carley, then President of our student chapter of SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Spaces) and the University Space Society (I believe that was our student chapter of the National Space Society) has an account through the Computer Science program. It was the first time I saw email and USENET. By the time I had my own account to access email ([email protected] – over 30 years later I still remember my address) I witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and knew of emails being sent back to and from SEDS members in the former Soviet Republic about what was happening and how what was being reported worldwide. I still have my 1994 Internet Yellow Pages and White Pages, a few InfoWorld, and InfoWeek, maybe a Compute!, Computer Weekly, eWeek and a PC Magazine from the time if the LOC is interested.

  16. Mary
    August 3, 2022 at 10:00 am

    At home there was AOL (never forget the sound of a dial up modem!), and dialing into the library catalog to find a missed citation, but the first “real internet” experience was telnetting to CERN the last semester of library school (Spring 1993) to look at the first HTML page. The general reaction was that it was interesting but not quite sure what to do with it. Little did we realize that a year later I would be setting up the internet station in a public library.

  17. Brian Grapilon
    August 4, 2022 at 5:11 pm

    My earliest memory of experiencing the internet was at the University Computing Center’s xterminals at San Diego State University in July 1995. There were a cadre of interesting and like-minded students and researchers, all in the xterminal labs BA-110/BA-113 ! Once, when David G. entered a contest online, he got the questions answered correctly, with a little help from four or five of us other lab goers. Afterwards, the prize of the contest was a t-shirt ! David typed back to the contest officials, “…how do you split a t-shirt between five people ?” He eventually graduated, another person got a job with Yahoo, and I left the university in the summer of 2000 to work at a defense contractor named Raytheon Systems Company.

  18. Jen Wachtel
    August 5, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    I remember the dial-up and AOL startup sounds! I remember we couldn’t use the landline phone when the Internet was connected, and likewise had to make sure that when we called people that they weren’t online! I learned about “surfing” the web in elementary school, complete with glorious late-90s graphics. Another one of my earliest Internet memories is coming up with my first email address with Hotmail in the early 2000s.

  19. Neva Fairchild
    August 10, 2022 at 3:05 pm

    In the 90’s I watched my kids use AIM and my husband use Compuserv but I didn’t venture on to the internet until I attended a conference cohosted by AFB and AER 2001 A Technology Oddysey and went to a session on using a screen reader with the internet. The first website I negotiated was EBay to find latch hook rug yarn because it wasn’t available at my local craft store. I found it and so much more over the years on EBay and other shopping sites.

  20. Tony D.
    August 13, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    My two cents worth: probably my earliest encounter with the Internet came when I attended a “Man and the Computer” conference at my alma mater in 1976. I was reminiscing with a professor about the students, myself included, who had worked for him in the college computer center. He turned to his computer terminal and typed a few lines. within a minute his phone rang — it was another former student calling to greet me. I was flabbergasted. He wasn’t calling from on campus — not even from the same state. That was the first time I saw e-mail in action.

    Speaking of modem noises, when I was an undergraduate there was a grad student who reputedly could decode text on a phone line by listening to the signal. In those days modems were 110 baud asynchronous, so I believe he could do it, at least for some common character sequences.

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