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The days of dial-up modems

I popped in to see my parents a few days ago and after lunch Dad threw out one of his infamous tech questions apropos of nothing - "so the modem goes between the computer and the phone line right?". Modem? Hmmm. It turned out he'd been getting his info from a library book - written some fifteen years previously, in 2003. I remember 2003 well. It was the year I went through divorce. It was the year I became a qualified diver. It was the year I first went to Thailand. It was the year the dream of building a new operating system the likes of which the world had never seen before turned sour. It was the year I went from being a couch potato to running marathons. And it was the last year I would access the web from home with a dial-up modem.

A lot of people don't remember the Internet was around long before the web. I was using the Internet in 1981, but it's been around since 1969 in some form or other. Back in '81 I accessed the Internet from a tele-printer, or if I was lucky a dumb terminal. The tele-printer was the size of a dining table and it was basically a printer with a keyboard. What ever was sent back from the VAX it was connected to got printed on a seemingly infinite roll of paper from a large box under the tele-printer. That golf ball-sized print head would whack the paper with such force it made your teeth chatter. I was usually hanging out in a room with a dozen tele-printers in it and when I went down to the common room to get a coffee my ears would still be ringing. That old VAX was a real beast that took up a large room and belted out heat like the sun. Its saving grace was it was connected to JANET, the Joint Academic NETwork, and that was a key piece of the Internet backbone. You could hop on and FTP and email with the best of them.

Some years later the web happened. It was sometime around 1994. I was sitting in the South Bank Uni's computer lab and a friend there mentioned he was starting a consultancy company to advise businesses of this new web thing and did I want to throw in my lot with him. I was too distracted with neural networks (which I thought were going to be REALLY big), operating system internals, and trying to figure out Fourier Transforms to be bothered with "web pages" and domain names. He went on to start a successful company and I continued to lecture at a college that spectacularly failed to become "University of Epsom". Not that I'm bitter of course. No really.

The web caught up with me a couple of years later though. I'd had enough of the politics of the snake pit that is Further Education and ended up working as a Microsoft Certified Trainer. I was teaching TCP/IP and NT Server to harried-looking sys admins whose companies ditched their VAX minis like hot potatoes and bought tricked out PCs running NT Server (3.51), and hooked up in a hurry to this new fangled web-thing.

Those were days with a lot happening, where the ground shifted under tech people daily. I remember once attending a "train the trainer" course at Microsoft. The trainer was a Seattle girl, cool, young, with old-fashioned-but-trendy glasses, a cute accent and an encyclopedic knowledge of Microsoft products. This delegate came in late looking like someone with too much caffeine in his system and nothing to show for it, and announced to the entire class, with something close to sheer panic in his voice, "I've got a 100,000 customer database I need to get on the Net". There was a stunned silence until the trainer laconically replied "Haven't we all!". The whole classroom erupted into laughter and the new delegate sheepishly cracked a half-smile before finding his place. Say what you want about Microsoft, their courses back then were some of the best software training courses in the world, and always good fun.

But back to 2003. My "wifi" back then was a really long phone cable. It had its own little circular case with a handle and I could unwind this phone cable from the upstairs study and run it down to the phone socket in the hall and it was awesome. I was using a V34 modem that topped out at 28.8 kbit/sec. My service provider was Tiscali. I'd connect up, dial their number, and after a burst of pops and crackles I'd be shooting the breeze on ICQ. When I was done I would turn the little handle and roll up my cable and store it away for next time.

And then in the summer of 2004 I got a new house and real wifi and the modem got put in a box and never came out again.

I told my Dad to take that book back, or better yet burn it. I opened a drawer and found the iPad with cellular my sister had given him months before, but he hadn't known what to do with, and within minutes he was looking at his grandson's Instagram and it was the closest thing to magic he'd ever seen.