This day in 1979–a great date for fans of science fiction and technology as it was also the day that George Lucas finished filming Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back–a company called Compu-Serve (later rather subtly renamed CompuServe) launched the first consumer internet service through U.S. technology retailer Radio Shack called MicroNET. Included in MicroNET was the first-ever public electronic mail service, and it was thus the earliest publicly available precursor of today’s email and website-dominated world.
By 1979 Compu-Serve was already celebrating its tenth birthday. It was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969 with the intention of providing a computer time-sharing service for businesses, and over the years it evolved into a reasonably successful company providing online data to corporations. But then it switched targets, and diversified into the wider world, and the new technology of dial-up internet. The MicroNET service was launched for ordinary citizens with their own personal computers (often purchased from Radio Shack). However, this was still a very small, slowly growing target market in the 1970s, and therefore many in the company thought it was a waste of time and effort.
Nevertheless, in the 1980s computers started to appear in more and more homes and so did MicroNET, alongside other innovative products. It was a time of rapid technological change, and the start of the online revolution that has transformed society: In 1980 Compu-Serve created the first service offering real-time online chat online, the CB Simulator; in 1982, it started a Network Services Division for corporate clients; and in 1986 it teamed up with Asian technology giants Fujitsu and Nisso Iwai to enter the Japanese market. By 1987, only eight years after it first went on sale, MicroNET had become solely responsible for half of all Compu-Serve’s profits. And two years later, in 1989, the corporation expanded into Europe, becoming a very early and very important Internet Service Provider and a household name across the world.
The MicroNET service was the very first to offer dial-up internet and rudimentary email to ordinary consumers, initially in the U.S. and then internationally. Through offering MicroNET, as well as subsequent and ever-more-sophisticated products, Compu-Serve was a crucial driving force behind the initial emergence of the online services industry in the 1980s and its consolidation in the 1990s, and so it shaped 21st century communications such as this very website.