The WELL was a partnership between the Point Foundation (parent non-profit organization of the Whole Earth Catalog) and Networking Technologies International (NETI) and was the brainchild of Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. Their idea was to create and offer an online conversational space for early adopters of telecommunications technologies, starting with people who were fans of Whole Earth publications and creative hackers in the new world of personal computing.
NETI had already been instrumental in developing software to support multiple online conversations. It was called Picospan and it was written by Marcus Watts. It ran on the UNIX operating system. NETI also committed to providing The WELL (named by Stewart Brand as the Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link) with a host computer – a DEC Vax 11-750 (valued then at around $100K). NETI also contributed several Racal-Vadic modems, two Fujitsu Eagle hard drives (each with a capacity of 450 Megabytes and a price of $10,000) and a DEC line printer that served as the terminal for the system, cranking out reams of accordion-folded paper recording all system operations.
When the idea and initial planning of The WELL first reached me I was just finishing up my job as coordinator of review submissions for the second and last edition of the Whole Earth Software Catalog. We were shutting down the WESC office and preparing to move back into the cramped spaces of the CoEvolution Quarterly office. There was some remodeling required to fit the new arrangement and I was kept on as the lead carpenter for that project. The WELL needed not only office space for its founding Director – Matthew McClure – but also an air conditioned space for the Vax and its peripherals. This space – “the Closet” – had to be as small as possible to leave room for CoEv staff and to minimize the cooling requirement. To save money, we purchased and installed a window-mount air conditioner from Sears.
In the midst of the construction activities I was also invited to take over the bookkeeping and accounting responsibilities for the Point Foundation. My introduction to personal computing had been through a year and a half of bookkeeping for a communally-based food company – Farm Foods – where I began with an Apple //e and conducted research to purchase a faster, dual-user system from Tandy-Radio Shack that ran a variation of the UNIX operating system. I knew just enough about that technology to be dangerous, but at Whole Earth the accounting was done on an MS-DOS program.
When the VAX and the Fuji Eagle hard drives were delivered, the installation was managed by another of the resources provided by NETI – the UNIX expert and hacker Hugh Daniel, who had moved from NETI’s home base in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Sausalito. Hugh helped Matthew – who had more of a technical background than I – get familiar with the operating system and the administration of Picospan. The WELL was first booted up in the fall of 1984 and the first users were invited from the list of experts and reviewers who wrote for the Software Catalog. Matthew led the way in initiating the interaction and – together with the initial “beta” users – we began exploring the many features and options of Picospan.
The WELL as a community began to develop through experimentation and I was given the responsibility of creating a program that would allow us to process credit card billing once we were open for business following the beta testing.
Next: People as resources and You Own Your Own Words.