April 20, 2024

CompuServe honored for laying the foundation for today’s Internet

Decades before Google, Facebook and Amazon Web Services, all of which have invested billions of dollars in central Ohio, there was CompuServe, the first major online service that gave home computer users access to the Internet and turned the region into the center of the world. tecnologic world.

Chat forums and bulletin boards, email, widespread access to online newspapers and magazines, stock quotes and weather forecasts were among the multitude of products and services provided to users years before they were available elsewhere. The company, founded in 1969, became famous for inventing the GIF digital graphics format.

At its peak, CompuServe served more than 3 million subscribers.

“I always wanted to have fun. I always wanted to make money and I wanted to change the world,” said Jeff Wilkins, who helped found CompuServe in 1969 and today serves as CEO of software company Facilities Management eXpress. “Now, I haven’t changed the world, but I’ve certainly influenced it… I’ve done it several times. How can you have a better life than that?”

Ohio Historical Marker Honors CompuServe History

Before Christmas, the state placed a historical marker at CompuServe’s former headquarters at 5000 Arlington Center Blvd. in Upper Arlington in honor of the 50th anniversary of the company’s headquarters in that building.

CompuServe’s operations remained in the 20,000-square-foot building until 2009, even when the company was sold to H&R Block in 1980 and then sold again as part of a $1.3 billion three-way deal with WorldCom and AOL in 1997.

The company ultimately employed 1,300 workers in central Ohio, including 810 at its headquarters, The Dispatch reported in 2009.

The City of Upper Arlington along with GOSH Enterprises, the building’s current owner who is developing it as commercial office space, sponsored the event that attracted local and state political and business leaders.

Lt. Governor Jon Husted compared the work done by CompuServe to the development of the steam engine by opening the door to the digital channel of information.

“It was critical to the world we live in today,” Husted said. “It happened right here.”

“Google, (Amazon Web Services), Intel, Facebook are companies that would not exist if it were not for the seeds planted in this room,” said Kenny McDonald, executive director of the Columbus Partnership, the region’s most powerful business and civic organization.

Amazon Web Services’ investment in the region has reached $7 billion and will at least double by the end of the decade, said Merle Madrid, public policy manager at Amazon Web Services.

“That’s all because of what started here,” he said.

CompuServe History

CompuServe’s history dates back to 1969, before the company was established on Arlington Center Boulevard.

Wilkins and his father-in-law, Harry Gard, founded CompuServe as a computer time-sharing service, operating as the IT department of Golden United Life.

Wilkins wanted to know if the company’s computers, which were busy during the day serving business clients, could be used at night.

At the same time, hobbyists were beginning to dabble in something new called the personal computer.

“At first, personal computers were kits. No one really made a complete machine,” Wilkins said.

It started as a test with a computer club that had several hundred members, he said. The company created databases that its business clients used and that Wilkins assumed individuals would also want to see.

“To my great surprise, people started using us,” he said. “That’s when I thought there was something there.”

CompuServe presents the first online newspaper

Wilkins knew that if he really wanted to grow the service, he had to have more content.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, it would be great if we could incorporate a newspaper service into the CompuServe Information Service,'” he said. “That would help us drive subscriptions.”

Wilkins met with The Columbus Dispatch editor John F. Wolfe to discuss how to access the newspaper, the first newspaper in the country to test the technology.

The Dispatch began streaming journalism content through the service that included access to content from The Associated Press.

The Who’s Who of Journalism comes to CompuServe

After success with The Dispatch, Wilkins wanted to extend the partnership to other newspapers and proposed it to AP’s board of directors, made up of leaders from some of the country’s largest newspapers, including Katherine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post.

Those leaders met at CompuServe headquarters, where Wilkins asked for 10 newspaper volunteers willing to offer $250,000 in free advertising to each paper, plus access to the AP News Service, with The Columbus Dispatch being the first newspaper to participate.

“Basically, I tried to present a picture of what it was and what it could become,” he said. “These people are all visionaries.”

The board agreed, but said Wilkins needed to offer the service to any newspaper that wanted to participate in the test.

On July 1, 1980, Wolfe, Graham and Wilkins officially launched the service to CompuServe’s then 10,000 home computer subscribers.

News was delivered to home computers at 300 words per minute, and users paid $5 an hour for the service that was billed in one-minute increments.

It marked the beginning of a growth streak for the company.

“Almost everything that ever ended up on the Internet, we had in one form or another on the CompuServe Information Service,” he said.

H&R Block bought CompuServe in 1980 for $20 million.

“I thought we needed capital to grow this,” Wilkins said. “I could see what it was going to be. I was looking for a partner who could help us achieve this. We were growing as a company very quickly.”

In 1985, Wilkins was forced to leave the company, but even then he said he still cared about it.

“The momentum was so strong at that time. All the pieces were in place. The talent was fantastic. Motivation was high. The company was succeeding… When you have that kind of nuclear power, you can get a lot of things done.”

mawilliams@dispatch.com

@BizMarkWilliams

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *