Digital Archeology 101: Exploring the Internet’s Oldest Websites

Ben FreelandTechnology

Summer is nearly upon us, which normally means day trips and longer journeys to popular tourist sites and the like. For the time being, however, there looks to be very little of this, as COVID-19 continues to rage and even the most optimistic predictions point to an anything-but-normal summer.

So, what is one to do this year for tourism? Well, getting outdoors and being a tourist in your own city or town (providing you take the necessary precautions and observe social distancing rules) is definitely still in the cards. However, if you’re an amateur historian looking for an unusual tourism experience, you needn’t even leave your own house—a whole galaxy of ancient relics are to be found by way of your own WiFi router!

The word “old” is, of course, relative. Here in Edmonton even the oldest of its buildings (such as those in Old Strathcona) are thoroughly modern by the standards of, say, Paris or Beijing. As for the Internet, which has only existed in its current form since 1990, even its most antiquated content is still younger than many of the commercial airliners still flying and very much still within the ambit of “recent history”.

That said, the astonishing extent to which cyberspace has evolved since Tim Berners-Lee created the WorldWideWeb in 1990 is such that much of the web’s oldest content is so arcane looking that one might as well be staring at the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Rosetta Stone. Very little of this “Ancient Internet” exists, which makes it fascinating sightseeing.

So far the Lonely Planets of this world have ignored this fascinating tourism “destination”. If you’re a travel writer by trade looking for an interesting book or article pitch, this might be a good one. Here are a few “destinations” to add to your list.

Symbolics.com

The contents of this website don’t look especially arcane. However, the domain itself was registered on March 15, 1985 (“Careless Whisper” by Wham! Was #1 on the Billboard charts at the time). This makes it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continually existing domain names on the Internet. The computer manufacturer behind the site’s creation has long been out of business. Like many old buildings, the Symbolics site is a piece of history. Today it houses a fascinating virtual “museum” of Internet history.

Vortex Technology

Lauren Weinstein is an unsung pioneer of the modern Internet, and an activist who remains one of the United States’ leading champions of net neutrality. A leading developer of Arpanet back in the 1970s, he is the co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, the creator and moderator of the Privacy Forum, and a blogger on a website whose domain (vortex.com) he registered back in October of 1986—a full four years before the establishment of the WorldWideWeb. The site still looks like a 1986-vintage web page, even though it’s still in active use.

Texas Internet Consulting

The website for Texas Internet Consulting was registered in 1987. It remains active to this day despite the fact that it clearly hasn’t been updated since 2004. Very little information on the company is available on the site, other than they apparently specialized in GNU/Linux and Unix System Architecture, TCP/IP network design, network security, and open source tool development. The company’s one-time lead network designer, Smoot Carl-Mitchell, is listed on LinkedIn as Senior Open Systems Administrator with Cort Business Services in Phoenix.

Acme Laboratories

Sounds like something out of a Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon, right? Acme.com is another fascinating piece of Internet history that hearkens back to 1991, and looks like it. Acme.com is the business page for Internet pioneer Jef Poskanzer, a developer whose claim to fame is being the first person to post a weekly FAQ to Usenet. While nothing about Poskanzer post-2005 seems to be available online, the site is still alive and well.

Nathan’s Toasty Technology Page

Remember the 1990s? Apple was lost in the wilderness and Bill Gates was still seen by many as a monopoly-building megalomaniac—as opposed to the now-mild-mannered champion of malaria eradication and other noble causes? It all seems like ancient history now, but there are still bits and pieces of the Internet that hearken back to those days. None do so with quite as much retro-flair as toastytech.com. The pièce de résistance page is entitled “Internet Explorer is Evil.” It features images of Bill as Satan, overtop gloriously anachronistic animated hellfire.

Creator Nathan Lineback remains an independent IT consultant based in Marietta, Georgia. The site he created remains a glorious throwback to the nineties.

Zombo.com

There’s a very good reason why web developers abandoned Flash-based animation. Reason: Flash-based websites were always difficult to navigate and all-around annoying, and with the advent of the smartphone they have become more or less obsolete. Nevertheless, Flash had become such an obsession in the late-1990s that it spawned joke websites that mocked the trend towards pointless animation on website landing pages.

One such spoof that went viral before the phrase “going viral” was even in popular parlance is Zombo.com. Created in 1999, the site consists of exactly one page. The page features a single Flash animation of a rotating flower and a ridiculous voice saying “Welcome to Zombocom” followed by a whole lot of corporate drivel about how “the future is yours at Zombocom” and the like. This is how everyone talked prior to the dot-com bust, and this website is a shrine to the silliness of the pre-bust Internet. 

Got any other online archeological sites to recommend? We’d love to hear about them!