Twenty years is a long time. Well over seven thousand days. Two-hundred and forty months. Five presidential terms. The time between the first flight of the Boeing 747 (1969) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). The time between the beginning of the great depression (1929) and the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (1949). The time between the election of President Ronald Reagan (R) (1980) and the new millennium (2000).
It is also roughly the amount of time between when I launched my first web site . . . and today.
Many details of the timeline are lost to the fog of history, but here’s what I’ve been able to piece together. In the fall of 1995, I was in the eighth grade at Franklin Middle School in Chantilly, Virginia. I was sitting in my math class, likely not paying much attention, when somebody entered the room to make an announcement: they were looking for students who were interested in computers to work on some project. I was interested in computers (and not very interested in anything else going on at the school), so I volunteered.
At some point, a number of us volunteers got together with some staff members and learned that what they wanted to do was create a web site for the school. We had some business partners who arranged for a bunch of us middle schoolers to take an introductory course in hypertext markup language, or HTML, which is the language that (still today) tells a web browser how to display a page on the Internet.
I knew that the Internet existed, but that was about all I knew about it before that class. My family had an account on CompuServe, an online service much like its main competitors, America Online (AOL) and Prodigy. They had begun including access to the Internet along with their own curated services, but I was not very impressed when my father first showed it to me. I don’t remember what specific page we tried to bring up, but I do remember that it took forever just to load a couple of smallish graphics. We were probably on a 9600 baud modem at the time, although we might have upgraded to 14.4k. My impression was, unless speeds got a lot better, the Internet was not going to catch on. Luckily, speeds got a lot better.
Our little group of budding web developers at Franklin Middle began work on the school’s first web site, and at about the same time I began using my new knowledge to build my own little web site at home. About the same time that the school’s site went live, so did Website 1.0!!!, the distant but direct ancestor of Off on a Tangent. I have no idea what day it was, or even what month it was, but I am reasonably sure that it was some time in October or November 1995.
In the second semester of my eighth grade year, our little team became a class all its own. They called it “Tech Systems” and allowed us to take it in lieu of some other course. Every other day (we were on an A/B block scheduling system), we would gather in one of the shop classrooms, where there were a few Windows 3.11 PCs, and we would work on the parts of the school site that we were responsible for.
I was responsible for keeping a couple of ‘team’ areas up to date with new announcements and information. And of course, I was messing around with the site as much as I could . . . trying new techniques, seeing how they looked, and learning more and more of the nuances of HTML. I was taking those skills home and applying them to my own site, which I periodically redesigned and updated.
After I finished the eighth grade and went on to high school, I began branching out and building more and more web sites . . . including one, the Chantilly Students’ Union, that prompted some blatant civil rights violations by the administrators of Chantilly High School and, later, some questionable activity by the Fairfax County Police Department. But my personal web site survived and grew and improved into what you see today.
Because I volunteered when somebody asked for students who were interested in computers, I learned the very basic fundamentals of how the Internet and the World Wide Web works and got into it when it was still (relatively speaking) in its infancy. My efforts on my personal web site and other projects that followed formed the basis of my career. I worked as a web developer in high school as part of an internship program, and did similar work during and after college. Web development is still what pays my bills today.
It’s funny how those things work.
So, happy twentieth birthday, Off on a Tangent. Here’s to the next twenty.
Below is a small taste of how the site evolved over the years . . . to see all of the intermediate versions, you can visit the Retro Websites page.