Interviews With Early Web Developers · Ron Wilson 1

What this is about:

Don't let the greying hair fool you. Many of those leading the charge of community on the World Wide Web are middle-aged technophiles who had their roots in the PC revolution of the mid-eighties. Such is the case with Ron Wilson, who could be found manning an early writer's Bulletin Board System in Denver, Colorado a decade ago. Internet Brothers invited Ron to talk to us in July 1999 about life as a veteran net junkie, and to offer his astute observations about writing for this online media. From his home in Spokane, Washington Ron oversees the development of Chivamba's Kraal, a tribute to the late 19th century author and adventurer Stanley Portal Hyatt. A celebrated writer and lecturer in his own right, Ron has a lot to share with us about the importance of the written word on our web sites.

Jeff ClarkThis is your friendly interviewer, Jeff Clark, as he appeared in 1999. Time changes things.

The Web As Resource

1980s Apple Lisa [Internet Brothers] Ron is the webmaster of Outspan, an historical initiative focusing its attentions on the awakening of the African continent. Ron, please tell us about the latest Outspan projects.

[Ron Wilson] For me the Internet's truly great potential has always been to make available resources that may not exist elsewhere or if they do exist, are not readily accessible. Out of print books is a good example. I had this in mind when I created Outspan and offered free the full text of a book that has been out of print for over seventy-five years. While the book is a personal favorite of mine, my mail indicates that the effort has been of value to others as well. Like you, I view the World Wide Web as a community — one that can easily be enriched by the contributions, both great and small, of individual members. If nothing else, I hope Outspan will serve as such an example. Future Outspan projects will invariably include making available more materials of historical interest, quite probably some of the more obscure. To continue my African interest, I'd like to do something on Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza or Frederick Selous. I'll leave presenting the famous authors to Project Gutenberg.

[IB] For our guests who may be just cutting their teeth on the Internet and World Wide Web of the late 90s, share with us what the pioneers were doing in the rough-and-tumble world of the BBS seemingly eons ago.

[RW] The days of the computer bulletin board do seem like the Stone Age compared with today. Many were run from early CP/M Osborne or Kaypro computers, 64 kilobytes of memory, no graphics, and monochrome screens. The early bulletin boards were essentially a text-sharing interface that allowed users to connect one-at-a-time over a telephone line to a PC on the other end. From there users could read and post messages, upload or download files, plus share the latest scoop with other computer enthusiasts. Modems typically were Hayes Smartmodem 300/1200 baud externals in an aluminum box. Since there were no graphics to load, 1200 baud didn't seem all that slow. I remember buying my first Hayes 300/1200 for $450 — so relieved that the price had dropped from $750. Most BBS's required registration and a password to post messages, so if you misbehaved while online the Sysop (System Operator) had only to delete your password from the appropriate file and you were locked out. I remember one of the big no-nos at the time was "dropping carrier," which meant you gave the command to your modem to simply hang up without first formally signing off from the host computer. A first blush at "netiquette," I suppose.

“I have a deep respect for those who have carried the torch so far and made life so much easier for today's computer users.” — Ron Wilson

We Have It Good Today

[IB] How do you compare those early experiences with the fast paced multimedia world of online community today? Do you find it challenging being as much as twenty years older than the majority of today's web developers?

[RW] There really is no comparison. I constantly marvel at how much easier it is to make your way around today's computers. In 1983 when I bought my first computer (to the tune of $1800!), you'd switch it on and the only thing that would happen is a little flashing green cursor would appear in the upper left hand corner of the otherwise blank screen. If you didn't know where to go from there, everything you tried would produce a cryptic error message of some kind. The ones announcing themselves as "fatal errors" were doubly intimidating. Eventually, when you learned enough to run programs, you discovered to your dismay that every piece of software you acquired had its own command set, that is, what keys you had to push in combination with other keys to make the program function. You always needed little cards or cheat sheets handy to make your way through different programs because there was no way you could remember everything you needed to know to make each one work.

Despite all of that frustration, though, I wouldn't trade those days. I learned everything from the ground up: I learned to write simple programs in BASIC, learned to compile them into executable files, made batch files to do useful little tasks for me like combine several text files into one big one. All in all, it was a good, solid background for what was to come — much like learning how to do math before calculators were invented. Sure, I want to use a calculator today to extract square root, but having done it longhand and with a slide rule in years gone by, new hardware doesn't intimidate me.

Even learning to write in BASIC (spaghetti code, as it was known then) gave me much insight that was valuable later in composing HTML pages, which I enjoy writing so much today because compared with BASIC, Pascal, Fortran or the other high-level languages of that bygone age, it's a total cakewalk. I have a deep respect for those who have carried the torch so far and made life so much easier for today's computer users.

African Huts [IB] Your Portal-Hyatt site has undertaken something not found frequently on the Web these days. It includes the entire text of the author's self-examination "The Diary of a Soldier of Fortune." How did that come about?

[RW] In late 1968 I sailed to North Africa on a Yugoslavian freighter and spent six months exploring. My fascination with Africa is similar to my fascination with the Internet, both have things in common: historically, Africa until recently was a mystery. Then a few bold explorers ventured into unchartered territory and brought back glowing reports of vast untapped resources and potential. Following the announcements, a whole host of entrepreneurs, carpetbaggers and bandits descended, turning the landscape into a lawless frontier where anything went. Next came the seekers of order, civilization and honest commerce. You get the analogy.

I like Stanley Portal Hyatt's window into the colonial period (Africa's version of the Wild West). He speaks his mind, never having heard of political correctness, and has quite a tale to tell. His book really impressed me when I first read it in 1990, so I thought I'd share it. Digitizing a 100,000 word book took more than the three weekends I'd planned for it, however. But now through the miracle of the Web, it's there online at Outspan for anyone who cares to have it — photographs and all. My gift. [Editor's note: Unfortunately, Ron Wilson retired Outspan a few years after this interview.]

Proceed to part 2 of Internet Brothers interview with Ron Wilson.

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