When they’re done right, an oral history is like hosting the most interesting dinner party imaginable, where the guests tell the kind of stories that turn into legends. Vanity Fair’s oral history of the Internet is an example of doing it right.
As part of its latest issue, the magazine interviews countless contributors to the early days of cyberspace as we know it today. “How the Web was won” is a long read, but well worth it if you have the time. If you don’t, enjoy these personally-selected sound bites that made me want to keep turning the page.
“Communication always changes society, and society was always organized around communication channels. Two hundred years ago it was mostly rivers. It was sea-lanes and mountain passes. The Internet is another form of communication and commerce. And society organizes around the channels.”
— Vinod Khosla, venture capitalist
“Let me put it into perspective. So here we are when there are very few time-sharing systems anywhere in the world. AT&T probably said, Look, maybe we would have 50 or a hundred organizations, maybe a few hundred organizations, that could possibly partake of this in any reasonable time frame. Remember, the personal computer hadn’t been invented yet. So, you had to have these big expensive mainframes in order to do anything. They said, There’s no business there, and why should we waste our time until we can see that there’s a business opportunity? That’s why a place like arpa is so important.”
— Robert Kahn, former Bell Labs employee who worked with Vint Cerf on the TCP and IP networking protocols in the 1970s.
“The idea of leaving files for each other was pretty common in the time-sharing world. A guy named Ray Tomlinson, at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, figured out a way to cause a file to be transferred from one machine through the Net to another machine and left in a particular location for someone to pick up. He said, I need some symbol that separates the name of the recipient from the machine that the guy’s files are on. And so he looked around for what symbols on the keyboard were not already in use, and found the “@” sign. It was a tremendous invention.”
— Vint Cerf
“The hottest job title during the frothy days was—you’d see 25-year-olds who had the title of ‘vice president, business development.’ It was like sales without the quota. I remember asking one of these V.P., biz-dev guys how his company was doing, and he says, ‘Oh, it’s great, we’re into our third round of financing.’ And I said, Well, how about the revenue side? Are you profitable? He says, ‘We’re a pre-revenue company.’”
— Upside magazine’s Rich Karlgaard
“What do people use networks for? They use e-mail. They send files around. But until ’93 there’s no killer application that would draw in real people. I mean, people who are not academics or not in the technical industries. The World Wide Web turns the Internet into a repository, the largest repository of information and knowledge that’s ever existed. Suddenly, people who want to check on the weather or keep track of the stock market—suddenly, there’s a wealth of stuff you can do.”
— Lawrence H. Landweber, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Wisconsin who founded CSNet, which connected universities without access to the Arpanet.