Book Review – On the Way to the Web – The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders

Most people these days are reasonably familiar with the Internet although some get the Internet and the Web mixed up, thinking they’re one and the same. The reality is that there was an awful lot going on in the online world long before Tim Berners Lee formulated the ideas that became the World Wide Web.

On the Way to the Web by Michael A. Banks hopes to educate those who are more recent users of online services whilst providing a timely reminder of how it was for those of us who have been around ‘out there’ somewhat longer. Along the way it also corrects many of the urban myths and misconceptions about how it all came about.

The Internet itself started with ARPANET with the first moves towards its creation dating back to 1957. Not long after, various organisations such as NASA were starting to use primitive networks to share data and even hospitals had remote access to medical information as far back as the 1970’s.

Where this book really excels is the history of the different companies, which came (and usually went) over the years. It is also quite a depressing read in places to be reminded of how great Compuserve once was or how there was a downloadable game service (GameLine) for Atari 2600 consoles way back in the early eighties that started just as the first games industry collapse kicked in.

It will also come as a shock to many to find out how far back AOL’s roots go or how it started out. It certainly wasn’t on a PC. Other companies getting a namecheck include BIX, The Well, Delphi, Genie and my own path to the Internet – CIX in the UK proving the author was keeping an international handle on events. Even now people seemed surprised that email was available in the late eighties/early nineties and prior to the web, Usenet was a veritable treasure trove of useful information plus the occasional entertainingly weird people. Google? What was that?

It was also a salutary reminder of how expensive some of these services could be with their per minute or per hour charges. I remember logging into the Atari 8bit area of Compuserve via a transatlantic call in the mid eighties when the call plus Compuserve charges added up to some £40 per hour – a weeks salary back then.

As well as the history, development and timeline of the Internet and related online systems, the book throws in lots of interesting nuggets such as why we use @ in email addresses, wireless internet access in 1978 and how the music industry went nuts when someone tried to launch a digital music download service in 1981.

I really enjoyed this book. It can probably be considered the definitive history of those early years. The author manages to impart the excitement of those times, the great ideas and the freshness of it all in a way that makes it a real page turner. The index allows you to dip into bits that might catch your eye but I ended up reading it cover to cover in a couple of sittings and that’s rare! My only criticism is that I’d have liked a bit more – it was all over to soon at under 200 pages.

So, for all you youngsters out there, go buy this book and discover just what us crusties got up to back in the day. You might be surprised. For the older ones, buy, read, and enjoy the memories of those halcyon days.