“If only someone had put baby Hitler on the web”, guest post by Andrew Brown

by Maria on April 4, 2019

Friend of CT, Andrew Brown, dug this memo out on the occasion of the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web, a few weeks ago.

This memo was sent in June 1994 to Sergio Cellini, who was, iirc, the chief advertising man at the Independent then. I was both the religious affairs correspondent and the editor of a weekly computer page.

It was headed “Cheap advertising for the paper: outmanoevering[1] the Guardian”

The Guardian is vigorously attacking the market for science and computer journalism.

Amongst other things, it has formed a link with Compuserve, the largest commercial provider of electronic information to home computers in the world. Compuserve has more than 2m customers and is growing fast. Any of these will be able to read selected articles from the Guardian, write to specialists there, and talk amongst each other.

We can’t afford the investment of time or money to do that.[2] But we can be smarter.

I propose that we experiment in distributing a weekly edition of the paper [3] over the Internet, a global computer network with at least 20m users, of whom 30,000 are in this country. It is possible to rent space on a sort of electronic billboard for less than
£75 a month.[4] That amount of space would enable us to make available practically the whole text of a whole week’s newspaper if we wanted to. I propose instead that we simply put together a sampler of interesting and amusing articles each week, perhaps
with some of our better photographs.[5]

This would be accessible from almost anywhere in the world for the price of a local phone call.

It would be much easier to read and more attractive to look at than whatever the
Guardian does with the relatively archaic technology offered by Compuserve. It would, however, be entirely separate from the paper’s own computer systems, so that there could be no security risk.

Unlike Compuserve, the Internet is not commercial. It is not even an organisation. It is a loose global association of co-operating networks, most of which were developed to link universities, using Government funding. Until recently it was extraordinarily
difficult for amateurs to use. However, a new program called the World Wide Web makes the Internet astonishingly easy and simple to navigate.

Demon Systems, who are the most successful suppliers of Internet services to the consumer market in this country, have just started to rent out “Pages” on the World Wide Web. We could have one running within four days[6] of a decision, for a £50 set-up fee and a modest monthly rental. As things stand at present, we would make no money, except indirectly. But Demon are working on ways to do business over the Internet in future, so that browsers could fill in a form on-screen and order back issues, or other merchandise, from us using their credit cards.[7]

In the meantime, we would be given a weekly report on how many people accessed the service, which would give us a clear idea of how large the potential market is.

Obviously all newspaper will have to move into this sort of market eventually. Doing it through Demon now allows us to do so quickly, cheaply,and flexibly.

[1] I still can’t spell that word
[2] These were the long years of the Independent’s commercial retreat
[3] I dunno: maybe call it “The Guardian Weekly” or something like that.
[4] This is hard to believe, but I will have checked the figure with Demon. In retrospect it is unlikely they had anything like the capacity.
[5] Might actually have been feasible, since we printed in black and white
[6] The old Indie had put together a printed Saturday godslot in three days from when I put the idea to Andreas WS (without having commissioned anyone, so that was fun). The Guardian, fifteen years later, took nine months to build a section of Comment is Free, web only, for religious matters.
[7] Though this was sent to the advertising manager, the idea that we could sell ads on the web had not occurred to anyone. The paper was to be an advertisement for itself



Doug 04.05.19 at 8:57 am

I remember Demon!

Of course, I remember punch-card terminals, too. On the other hand, I was away from the keyboard for a certain period, so I missed bang paths, the introduction of TLDs (a friend had an e-mail address that was just @gatech), and the Great Renaming. I have, however, seen an acoustic coupler in actual use.


Maria 04.05.19 at 6:23 pm

Oh man, I only remember the world in TLDs…


Maria 04.05.19 at 6:23 pm

Not to make you feel old or anything


Andrew Brown 04.06.19 at 7:27 am

I remember carrying an acoustic coupler around with my Tandy 200; also, the little kit of wires and screwdrivers for opening up hotel room telephones so that I could wire a modem into them. Oh dear.

The paradox was that when the Indie started up, eight years or so before I wrote that memo, we all had email addresses — with bang paths — because running Atex systems then required people at the evangelistic cutting edge of the online world. And one had *no idea* who else in the world might possibly have emails.

The Atex system had internal messaging built in. Naturally, people used this for the conduct of adulterous affairs. Naturally, the subs on home news figured out how to break into the messaging system and long chains of passionate, guilty love letters were circulated round the office.


Jim Fett 04.06.19 at 1:08 pm

Are you the Andrew Brown who writes for the Church Times?


Maria 04.06.19 at 2:20 pm

The very same one.


JBL 04.06.19 at 2:56 pm

Can someone explain the title of this post to me? :(


Andrew Brown 04.07.19 at 8:52 am

It’s a counterfactual: of course killing baby Hitler is supposed to have saved civilisation, which I doubt that putting the Independent online would have done. It wouldn’t even have saved the Independent. But it would have been a lot of fun.


Doug 04.08.19 at 7:15 am

2, 3: I wasn’t online until after TLDs were introduced; the friend with the @gatech address was there when “cloud computing” meant the first graphic simulations of clouds and trees using the newfangled math called fractals. I think he’s behind one of the masks on the cover of the second issue of Wired.

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