Story by Chris Baird (VK2CJB), posted on r/newcastle a few days ago.
Reposted here because it's relevant, and I was a part of this story.
Hello Reddit, what follows is an account of a bit of nearly forgotten Australian Internet history... (No I don't have a blog.)
* * *
On the 14th of August 1992, 30 years ago today, the Newcastle-based Public Access Unix system "Scorch", did its first email with the Internet.
It most certainly wasn't the first global computer network access available to anyone living in Newcastle. The University had computer-based messaging since the 1980s (DECnet, ACSnet) and joined the "network of networks" with the TCP/IP-based AARNet in the (?)1st week of March 1990. Access to AARNet, as you might have expected, was limited to Students, Staff, and organizations associated with the University (like BHP Labs), and it had a very savage by today's standards Acceptable Usage Policy: For Academic Purposes Only. And it was enforced with drastic consequences; being: losing the mainframe computer access privileges necessary for your coursework ==> no Uni Degree for you.
There was also the companies Pegasus, DIALix, and RUNX, providing a gateway to Internet email at the national scale; but those cost about $1/minute and had monthly fees, on top of the phone rental and long-distance call charges.
But Scorch, owned by Michael Brown (aka DoctorRock/ZenHarris), and maintained with the help of a small group of mostly students and unemployed, was the first any-nerd-off-the-street access to the international Internet community in Newcastle and NSW.
* * *
At the start of the 1990s, Newcastle had a well-established Fidonet-software Bulletin Board System presence for around 5 years, with about 25 dial-up BBSes in the immediate Newcastle/Lower Hunter area. There were also BBSes that had been operating during the mid-1980s, running on CP/M, Apple][s, MSDOS, and Commodore 64s, that sprung up when the need for permits[!] for modems was dropped by Telecom/Telstra. However, the Fidonet system was a network, where messages could be sent and received with users on a different Fidonet BBS.
I might as well include a list of local SysOps, as they're certainly also the forgotten electronic networking pioneers of Newcastle. Do you remember anyone? (or any of you still here??):
Alistair Harding, Andre Van Eyssen, Andrew Bergquist, Andrew Glazebrook, Andrew Guy, Andrew Kenna, Arie Upton, Brendan Hancock, Chris Ruwoldt, Chris Smoother, Daniel Oost, David Jaillet, David Lyons, Dick Strickleton, Geoff Bilborough, Ian Mason, Jared Quinn, Jason Bowe, Jason Mulligan, John Cocklin, John Fisher, Jon Fisher, Matthew Taylor, Peter Deane, Peter Thompson, Phillip Eastham, Raine Reinikka, Robert Stephens, Ross Slade, Scott Mackenzie, Simon Phillips, Stan White, Stuart Gibson, Tony & Michael Dodds, Tony & Helen Terbizan, Troy Harper.
Fidonet had a reputation, and it wasn't a good one--imagine the worst of social media, without anywhere near to the amount of government or police attention that occurs today. (Unless you did something really attention-attractingly bad ..and a few certainly did). The scene was very much influenced by the Cyberpunk Hacker aesthetic. But it was still accessible tech: 25-35 years ago, rather than running your own Discord server and finding others to hang out, it was running a dial-up BBS.
Michael had been trying to participate in the BBS scene. It needed more effort on his part because his computer Scorch ran UNIX, and Fido was almost entirely MSDOS, OS/2, and Amiga systems, with source code and published standards not being a thing. So everything had to be created from scratch-- but he was a programmer, and working on it.
* * *
Yours truly never got into BBSes. I was vaccinated back in 1986 from a high-school friend Peter Cousins' collection of lineprinter printouts that he'd procured from his Year 10 work experience at the Uni. On the hardcopy was this incredible free global electronic discussion network called 'Usenet Newsgroups', made up of Universities/Colleges and serious Computer companies, and something called the Internet was the primary way of it being distributed.
On the Usenet there was Unix, the C Programming Language, source code being freely passed around (legally! Go ahead and copy that floppy!), Richard Stallman's GNU Project, participants from /everywhere/, and college-level (better than teenage-level..) humor in net.jokes--type control-X for the good ones.
When I got to University as a B.Sc student in 1989, I leapt from a Commodore 64 to the mainframes, and quickly became a CPU-time burning bother, mostly on systems I didn't have authority to use.
(My computing personal history isn't the story for this post ..but let it be known when the Uni's AARNet connection arrived in 1990, and my immediately noticing it, I became the first person in Newcastle to download pron from the Internet! :) ..but back in those days, that meant small 16-colour GIFs of Samantha Fox..)
Towards the end of the first year of Newcastle Uni being connected to AARNet, there were grumblings in the Computer Services department and 'The Computing Senate' of banning Undergrads from using it. Hmm, it was time to pursue independent access. I needed my Usenet newsgroups and Email.
* * *
Personal/non-institutional access to the Internet was in 1990-1991 becoming a thing in the USA, and it hadn't escaped my attention that Mark Gregson in Melbourne had started the Pubnet Unix network "pub.uu.oz.au" around Victoria and South Australia. However, a computer with UNIX for an operating system was somewhat required, and those weren't cheap-- perhaps a $1500 (in 1991 money) spend for the most minimal-and-compromised MINIX or Coherent system-- and I was getting just ~$80/week from AUSTUDY.
However, a list posted to Usenet of public-access Unix systems in Australia had Michael's Scorch on it, and it was only a local call[!] away in Broadmeadow. A Sydney-side Unix developer Nick Langmaid, who Michael had been swapping magnetic tapes of source code with, had dropped his name in there.
Speaking to Michael on the phone was promptly done, and was told his system was trying to bring UNIX to the (dial-up Fidonet) masses, however it wasn't connected to Usenet or the Internet.
So I got invited over to 'House Harris' (a SF Movie reference I believe) at 63 Brunker Rd Broadmeadow (then painted blue, with lots of suspicious smells, and Underground Band noises--Michael was also a Muso with a practice room), bringing with me lots of printouts from the Net to show there were uncountable numbers of University Students in Newcastle who would prefer the power of the UNIX command-line to the menu-based BBS interfaces, and how it would be a seriously positive thing to connect to that global Internet, with its Unix developers and the other intellectually fun stuff (rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5, alt.tv.simpsons...)
I didn't doubt Michael's interest when I saw his cotton jacket that had a handmade bikie-style patch on the back with:
(UNIX is the computer operating system "that runs the Internet", and UUCP is the UNIX-to-UNIX Copy Program that handled the dial-up networking before SL/IP, PPP, etc. became available.)
Scorch-- sometimes known as the Craggenmore BBS-- was a god-box of its age: an 80386SX running at 16 MHz, with 4MB of RAM, 2 full-height SCSI1 drives (250MB total storage?), and a Mini Cooper engine temperature gauge to catch it overheating. (Yes, computers running at 16 MHz could overheat..) It ran a SCO/Microsoft version of UNIX called Xenix. Back then, the number of UNIX variants available for <$10,000 could be counted on one hand, and remove a few fingers if you wanted networking too.
The Usenet printouts were studied, and Michael pulled the trigger on making Scorch Internet-ready and waiting for the dial-up command-line users. Upgrades to Xenix were FTP'd, Usenet software and other free must-haves (emacs, gcc, perl..) were procured via my student account, and a bit of a sneaked Newsgroup feed to see it all working.
Meanwhile, I spread the word in the Uni computer rooms that Scorch was available, and we were aiming at getting email and news access for it. About 6 were initially interested (and a few who went "eww, UUCP!?" :P) It was becoming towards the end of the year, when Undergrads lost their computer access, so good timing. Michael went around telling the Unix users who he knew on the BBS side he was going to provide the raw and pure Unix experience, instead of trying to fit in with Fido.
Here's another list of names:- of the original Scorch Public Access Unix community:
Myself=Chris Baird, Michael "Zen Harris" Brown, Matt McLeod, Brett Rees, Andrew Glazebrook, Jared Quinn, Leon Garde, Luke Plazier (Newcastle Linux User#1 just about), David Gardener, Peter Longworth, Ross Slade, Bill Keir, Chris Deer (who split to start HunterLink because we thought the 0055/1-900 Internet idea sucked..), Marcus Westbury, Footlice Theatre, Greg Hore, Steph Curry, Ian Dixon, Philip Eastham ...and there's certainly more, who were Michael's friends that I didn't really get to know.
And the non-human members, being the computers on the local network being their own Internet email deliverable sites:
scorch, glencoe/brushtail, wotan, albion, cleopatra, columbia, toaster, kumear, guardian, beastmaster, helix, kastlore, krikkit, rlyeh, vortex, comtel, elands, darkside, nemesis, nest, tomaree, yoyodyne, zzap (...and 30 or so more, but I recall these being the earliest machines connected)
At the time, dial-up Internet didn't exist...because the protocols for wrapping up TCP/IP network traffic for sending through a modem, like SL/IP and PPP, hadn't been invented! Users were doing dial-up command-line/shell, and those who already had a Unix system at home had a UUCP connection. I recall Brett Rees' IBM/RT Wotan as the first site to network with Scorch.
With UUCP now up and running, and a good number of enthusiastic users who would support the idea no matter what (net.addicts like me who would give up all their available income for access..), Michael got in contact with the pub.uu.oz.au guys to set up a long-distance 2400 baud UUCP connection to Melbourne to join the Pubnet network. (Telstra charged something like 55 cents per minute for Newcastle-Melbourne calls!)
..and the first successful call with traffic passed through it from the outside world happened at 5pm on the 14th of August 1992.
* * *
The long-distance email connection with Melbourne wasn't /scarily/ expensive, being about $1 per call, but obviously an entire Newcastle's worth of Freenet traffic couldn't happen with it staying that way. So I made a written application to the University of Newcastle's Computer Services Department to request an external-user account with mail forwarding ("an MX"), as was available to members of the AUUG/Australian Unix Users Group.
The University's Computer services staff were actually very supportive of the idea (..it'd get all the trouble-makers off their system, wouldn't it? :) and they already had Australian Computing Society customers with its $1000/year MHSnet software (..which they tried to talk us into using! ..but..no). After everything was approved, Michael was asked over to the Uni to upgrade and configure the UUCP software on Seagoon, the Uni's primary email server.
We now had a local-call, untimed, and unlimited 9600 baud connection to the Net!! It was asked to use it during off-peak times, and with the size of the newsfeed we asked for, it still took from about 5pm to 2am each night. Internet traffic was growing exponentially then, and it didn't help that a number of users wanted the alt.binary.pictures.* newsgroups what used about 75% of the traffic (we secretly hated those guys..)
It wasn't a /real/ Internet connection-- you couldn't FTP, Telnet, IRC, or MUD with the outside world. However, the UUCP connection was configured so that Email had priority, and when the Uni connection was up during the evenings, emails in either direction only took a few minutes to be delivered, so you could spend all night back-and-forth chatting with others on the Net, from around the world, with your own personal computer, and it was allowed!
We also had an internal network, and you could access servers on other users computers. My own computer Brushtail had an FTP archive of mostly MOD music files, its own Usenet newsserver, a few Majordomo mailing lists, and a recently released "World Wide Web" server.
If I remember correctly, It cost about $80-100 a month to run Scorch. $60/mo being the fee the University charged for dial-up and use of Seagoon (the email/news server), and the rest in phone rental. While we asked the hardcore users to pay $10-$40 a year (maybe a dozen did?), it was mostly paid out of Michael and mine's unemployed pockets.
But, it was untimed and unlimited access, like you couldn't get anywhere else before 1994. At its peak, there was about 50 regular dial-in (human) users, 30 networked systems of the Linux or BBS persuasion (who had their own unknown number of users), and thousands of guest accounts created. Michael also ended-up operating a gateway for Fidonet, and several Fido BBSes got their feed directly from Scorch (..but those guys had to pay up-front).
Michael and Matt Mcleod did look into going commercial, but no-one then knew what the Internet was or saw a distributed global computer network that didn't have a single owner as anything worthwhile!
* * *
I'm going to finish up this recollection of Newcastle's early Internet at this point. There is still a lot of history with dramatic stories to tell from the years following 1992-- the rise of Scorch, the arrival of Linux, the incorporation of APANA, the creation of the HNA, when Bill Gates invented the Internet, the arrival of the commercial ISPs sch as Hunterlink and Connect.com.au, the impromptu Woolongong-Sydney-Wyong-Newcastle TCP/IP net, those who cheat at Tetris, the fall of Scorch and the rise of Brushtail (an Epic Tale of Sysadmin derring-do), Freemasons coming to the rescue, when Telstra tried to make every BBS, Freenet, and ISP pay them $70/month for every dial-up, the rise of Kastlore-Brushtail and Octopod... but I've given myself only a fortnight to write this, so I'm calling it quits here.
And with Michael's permission, I'll finish with a link to a photo of him with the loved-by-many 386SX16 that did real Internet email for everyone back in 1992...
(And with thanks to Michael for giving this message a look-over to see if anything was off, and the suggestions to prevent me from being sued. :-)
þ Synchronet þ It's just a jump to the left (and a step the right)...