Wednesday, June 06, 2007

My introduction to e-mail

When I left for college in the late summer of 1993, e-mail wasn't something I was really aware of. If they wanted to communicate, people wrote letters, sent postcards, or called each other on the phone. (For the record, I have several shoeboxes of old cards and letters. If any of my old friends from high school ever get famous, they are so screwed.)

But that first year at school, thanks to pressure from some of my computer-savvy (read: geeky or nerdy or dorky, take your pick) friends, I got my first e-mail address, ostensibly to keep in touch with all of my friends who had all gone off to different schools. But back then, if you wanted e-mail through the university, you had to pay for it. I think it was $15 a month. And, since I didn't own a computer, I was only able to access it through the computer lab, during the limited hours in which the lab was open. The whole thing was very inconvenient.

Besides, back then, $15 was a lot of money. (It bought a lot of beer and pizza.) So I opted not to use the university's e-mail system. Instead, I got an account with the Tallahassee Free-Net, which was run by the Leon County Library. You could only access TFN through library computers -- luckily, they had a few on campus -- which were painfully slow and horribly antiquated. In fact, the entire process was painfully awkward compared with what we're used to now. But it was a start.

I signed up for my TFN address in either late 1993 or early 1994, and kept it active for the past fourteen years. Until now. Sadly, the TFN closed down its operations on May 31, 2007.

On its website, the TFN described its history as follows:

Tallahassee Free-Net, Inc. (TFN) was founded in 1992 by two Florida State University (FSU) professors, Dr. Hilbert Levitz, Department of Computer Science, and Dr. Dennis Duke, Director of the FSU Supercomputer Computations Research Institute (SCRI). Both Levitz and Duke had long been fascinated by the potential for change inherent in computer networking. They both had been extensively involved with the development and deployment of the university's local and global networking facilities. This experience set the background for the decision to open some of these facilities, free of charge, to the public with a view to fostering civic engagement, social connectedness, distance education, and economic development.

Early on, The LeRoy Collins Leon County Public Library, under the direction of Helen Moeller, joined FSU's SCRI as an operating partner, with SCRI providing technical support and the library providing a central location in the community and experience in organizing community volunteer efforts. Michael Rouse was hired as the Library Freenet Director. Two SCRI employees were assigned to the project. Diane Wood, TFN Acting Executive Director and Randolph Langley, TFN Technical Director who developed the SCRI-Net Command Interpretor software for text-based logins that is still used by TFN as well as by many other systems worldwide. With the phase out of SCRI's support in 1995, TFN employed Emily Ratliff as System Administrator. Emily was succeeded by Noel Davis, TFN's volunteer System Administrator. In 1996, TFN retained David McMurtrey half-time as TFN's Executive Director.

At the time of its formal opening on May 5, 1993, the only people in Tallahassee/Leon County who had Internet connectivity and e-mail accounts were faculty and students at FSU. Very few local residents even knew what the Internet was. Using equipment donated by IBM, followed later by donations from Sun, and DEC, TFN quickly developed into one of the largest civic networks in the world - relative to the size of the community, it was possibly the largest with 38,000 registerd users in 1996.

TFN was the first such community information system in the Southeast and the sixth nationwide. More than an operator of an information system, TFN was an important agent guiding Tallahassee/Leon County into the Information Age. The TFN organization was the prime catalyst in the development of Tallahassee's computer communications infrastructure. As a consequence, Tallahassee/Leon County has an unusually high level of Internet awareness and connectivity. As Figure 1. illustrates, TFN's presence gave the community a significant lead over other communities. Early in 1994 when the rest of the country was just becoming aware of the web, TFN users were enjoying free ppp accounts and were developing their own web pages.

TFN assisted county and state government agencies, schools, and other institutions in planning for their roles in the emerging National Information Infrastructure. It conducted workshops for information suppliers, general users, teacher groups, and state and county government personnel. As a partner in the IRIS project with SCRI, Sprint/Centel, and the Leon County School System, TFN was instrumental in getting every public school in Leon County connected to the Internet, making the County one of the first school systems in the nation to be able to make that claim. Until the schools had their own mail and web servers, TFN provided free accounts to all teachers and students in the County.

With the phase-out of SCRI's support in 1996, Hayes Computer Systems generously donated space and network connections for TFN's servers. In November of 1999, TFN's servers were moved to the LeRoy Collins Public Library. TFN's Internet connections are provided by the Florida Information Resource Network (FIRN).

So, thank you, Tallahassee Free-Net. You were a great -- and free -- bridge into computer technology for me, and probably for numbers of others of my generation.


Justin S. said...

My first email was circa 1994. It was through a BBS which meant that I had to dial up and connect to someone's computer in Southern Illinois and could access whatever little bit of files he had on his home server, and could send and receive emails basically once a day. His server would dial up a long distance number every day to send and receive email to the rest of the world.

I did this probably for a few months before we got our first AOL account, which we had to dial long distance to Carbondale to access, so obviously I wasn't spending mass amounts of time surfing the web. Not to mention this was all at, I think, 28.8 kbps (if not 14.4).

Paige Jennifer said...

Wait, you even had the option of email at college? I graduated Smith in 1995 and the most exciting tech advancement during my tenure was being able to access voicemail outside of your own room. Oooooh..ahhhhhh. Yeah, NASA folks we were not.

dara said...

Justin: I got AOL for the semester that I moved back into my parents' house after I graduated in '95. It was 14.4 back then, but wasn't long distance to call Ft. Lauderdale. I had that AOL account until I got the Verizon DSL in my current apartment -- and actually, still have the free version from keeping my IM screen name active.

Paige Jennifer: Sometimes large state universities have advantages. Then again, I'm sure you didn't have to take general biology for non-science-majors with 999 of your closest friends.

mad said...

I signed up for AOL back in the day, then spent the next five years trying to cancel the account.

dara said...

Almost everyone of a certain age had AOL at some point, and every single one of us can make the same complaint.

My parents still have real AOL, not the free e-mail version. I keep telling them to ditch it -- especially since they got a cable modem and a wireless router -- but they just won't do it. It's really sad.

Tivey said...

We had intra-campus email at my tiny little college on VAX machines. You could send email externally, but I didn't know how till my senior year (1996), and only had one high school friend's college email address. I often wonder how many more high school and college friends I would be in touch with now had email been as widespread back then.

dara said...

I often wonder the same thing -- other than my best friend, all of the high school friends I still keep in touch with on a semi-regular basis are the ones that I was able to e-mail early on.

But without e-mail, most days I probably wouldn't communicate with anyone that is not a blood relative or someone I work with.