The Internet comes to TU: A history

I started working in higher education IT in February of 1990, when the Internet was still the private playground of academia.  Because of our computer science faculty requiring access to supercomputer sites for their research, the University of Tulsa was connected to one of the original NSFNet backbones.  Our upstream provider was MIDnet in Lincoln, Nebraska via what at the time was an expensive T-1 connection, to serve the entire University.

About the time I joined TU, Rick Kruse was putting the finishing touches on a fiber optic loop around the “U.”  TCP/IP was there, but the individual building connections was via Cabletron terminal servers — ancient, single-mode fiber connected through Ethernet transcievers, and from there in to terminal servers that provided network access to VT100 terminals, but only in computer rooms.

For perspective, this was the same time that Vyvx was putting single-mode fiber inside empty oil pipelines and making Tulsa the world capitol of fiber interconnects up until the late 90s.

I was originally brought on staff to manage the 5 student access computer labs on campus — which didn’t have internet.  Only IBM 80386 PCs — DOS, no Windows yet — and a small lab of Apple Macintoshes.  I was hired by Bob Chappelle and Dale Schoenefeld (then CS faculty), to join the Computer Resource Center: a collection of upstarts who would support these new microcomputers.  My title was “Microcomputer Specialist.”

Sidebar: I’d aggressively courted Bob Chappelle to get the job.  I was working for Ray Pearcey at Capital Systems Group, and while the experiences and connections were great, the money wasn’t.  I needed something more steady than a consultant’s draw, so every occasion I could find to be on the TU campus for a lecture or whatever, I’d drop in and see how the decision process was going…

We had a DEC VAX minicomputer, which was our sole access to the Internet through a gateway for those of us who didn’t have access to the SUN or Apollo unix systems in the Engineering College.  It was pretty heady stuff — for the first time, being able to send email out BEYOND the campus borders, to folk at other academic institutions.

At this time, AOL was starting to see the light and charge 25 cents per email from AOL through their Internet gateway.  Somewhere in my first few months, I downloaded a one-month trial just to see the magic of sending stuff from campus to my Mac at the house via modem and back again.  But not for that money — I cancelled after the first month, but it exposed me to Eudora:  a great and revolutionary email program written by Steve Dorner at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Among it’s great features were the ability to work over either a terminal server connection or Appletalk, which brought a graphical user interface to one’s email.

One of my cool stories about Steve Dorner: the speed of terminal server responses in different parts of the campus almost scuttled the project before it began, but one day I wrote Steve to say how GREAT I thought his program was, and to ask if maybe sometime he could slow down the response time of the serial connection by 5 seconds — just enough to let our Cabletrons wake up to the CRs that Eudora was sending.  Low and behold the next morning I get an email from Steve, with a patched version: “Here ya go!”

It was incredible, I tell ya — the power was intoxicating!  And courtesy of the nascent sharing economy of the Internet — all these great programs like Eudora, NCSA Telnet, later Mosaic, which begat Netscape — were all free for academic use.

The University had hired Reed Davis as our new Provost for Computing & Information Resources.  He’d come from the University of Arizona and was a breath of fresh air…for one thing, he knew about the Internet, and wanted it.  The planets aligned when I demonstrated Eudora to him, and I was tasked with spreading the Internet as widely and deeply as possible at TU.

This was not my sole gig — I was still managing 5 computer labs with approx. 36 student workers each year (more about that in another post, I’m sure).  So before long I started evangelizing the best and brightest of my students to come help in this task.  Folks like Tristia Rowland (now Watson), her boyfriend/future husband Lance Watson, and later Brett Sawrie, and Kok Mun Hoo.  All have gone on to do meaningful work in IT in Tulsa and Singapore.

Thankfully at that time TU was almost 70% Macintosh, so most offices were fairly easy to convert.  Early Macs with laser printing and service over Appletalk/PhoneNet wiring were starting to crop up everywhere — what was missing was gateway devices to connect the Appletalk network.  We started buying and installing Cayman GatorBoxes, which were a great “golden spike” to connect the local area networks with the campus WAN.

As Windows was still an unusable joke at this time, most DOS computers were forced to use command-line also-rans like POPMail.  In my zeal to cover the campus with a communications platform, I’d do what I had to do, for everyone.  It was ugly but worked.  Departments got to choose their platform.

My fave story about the spread of email: TU President Robert Donaldson figures prominently.  I’d happened to fix him up with email pretty early in, and it was at least a week or so before I could come back and complete the rest of McClure Hall (remember: had to keep the computer labs running).  One of his staff was reticent to get hooked up, but once she was connected and trained, her first download of POP3 email to her Mac was several emails from President Donaldson.  In increasing levels of tone and ALL CAPS, the first email was a simple request, and the others were basically: “WHY AREN’T YOU ANSWERING ME?” or similar.  It was a lovely example of the power of email, and the importance of IT adoption starting at the top…

When I left TU in December of 1995 to become the Director of Technology & Computer Services at Centralia College, I had an opportunity to do it all over again, but this time for an institution that was 97% Mac.  We even installed Mac servers.  But that’s another story…

 

2 comments on “The Internet comes to TU: A history

  1. Very interesting article. I was at TU when you came on board, Brett Sawrie was a suitemate of mine in the twin towers dorm and has been a friend ever since. I was later in joining the Internet revolution, originally my focus was the airline industry, which I’m still involved in, working with American Airlines in Tulsa. In 2000, I moved back home to Oklahoma City and worked as a network tech for AOL, PSINet/Inter.net, and Cox Communications before becoming a server analyst for Dell. Those were some crazy times, Brett kept me apprised of everything new coming down, but I was stuck with a Commodore 128 with a 1200-baud modem for years. I could not afford anything more, so had to rely on university computers or those of friends, like Brett, to get online. Great memories!

  2. Hey there, Kristopher — I haven’t run into Brett in awhile since he left The Company Formerly Known As TV Guide. It was indeed a heady time — I like to think that Tulsa was well-positioned to have been more of a player in those days, by virtue of all the excess fiber, but the tools were not yet approachable to most folks.

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