If you live in or around Evansville…here’s a fact that you may find interesting — it was 20 years ago this month (December 1994) that Evansville Online was launched. For the great and vast majority of people living on the planet, the Internet (or the Web) simply didn’t exist in 1994. Back then, how we use the Internet today would have sounded like pure science fiction. For many folks, Evansville Online was their introduction to the Internet. So for those of you who find stuff like this interesting, I thought I would share some of my memories of that time.
Evansville Online – The Early Days…
It was Christmas Day in 1994 when we ran the first advertisement that said Evansville Online was ready for business. EOL, as we more commonly referred to it, was already in use by approximately 50 beta users, but Christmas Day was our public introduction. Christmas was on a Sunday in 1994, so we really didn’t start allowing signups until Tuesday the 27th. And it wasn’t easy to become a customer. We had to mail you a set of 3 1/2″ floppy disks because the typical computer was running Microsoft Windows 3.1, didn’t know anything about the Internet’s networking protocol (TCP/IP) and Internet Explorer didn’t exist yet. Almost certainly you were going to make several calls to EOL Tech Support to get your software working. Your computer had to have a modem and you connected over your home telephone line. It was common for us to give up helping over the phone and just drive over to a customer’s house to see if we could get them connected. And there really wasn’t much to the Internet yet.
It was bleeding edge. And there was a lot of blood.
If you called Tech Support you were talking to either Aaron, Rachel, or Jonathan. All were Computer Science students at the University of Evansville. In fact, it wasn’t until September of 1995 that EOL had a paid employee who wasn’t a Computer Science student. If my memory is correct, 11 of the first 13 employees were UE students. And our office was right across the street on Lincoln next to By the Slice Pizza, which had opened at about the same time. We ate a lot of pizza. The wall between our office and By the Slice was suspect at best — so we always went home smelling like pizza. It’s a good thing we liked it! Our location also meant that it was common for customers to drop by to get help.
The Evansville Courier (now the Courier & Press) played a big role in the success of EOL. For the first year, the Courier was the strategic partner of EOL and within a year became the largest owner of EOL. We wrote software to simplify the publishing of the paper online. EOL was one of the first ISPs (Internet Service Provider) in the country and the Courier was one of the first newspapers to have nearly all of its newspaper content online.
Our small band of student-employees were trail blazers. In addition to the launching of EOL and bringing the newspaper online, we were involved in other projects that were the first — or very nearly the first — of their kind. We helped launch Internet banking at Citizens Bank (later acquired by Fifth-Third). Our best estimate at the time was that Citizens Bank was the 4th bank in the nation to have bank account information available via the Internet. Now every bank has this and more.
We also wrote software for the Vanderburgh County Assessor to make property records available online. Vanderburgh County was the first county in Indiana and one of the first in the nation to do this. I remember talking to the Assessor just after it launched and she remarked that the first day the site launched the phone just stopped ringing. It was as if the phone system just got turned off. It was an instant success.
One of the craziest things we did was to develop a system that connected to the vote tabulation system at the Vanderburgh County Clerk’s office. For several elections, we would update the vote counts for Vanderburgh County in real-time and publish via the Internet. You could see the vote totals get updated on a precinct-by-precinct basis during the evening as the old punch cards were run through the tabulation system. What we put together to make this happen looked like a Rube Goldberg machine, but it worked! But then electronic voting came along and made it unnecessary!
Bringing Internet Access to the Tri-State Community
In addition to Evansville Online, we expanded throughout the Tri-State area and launched Henderson Online, Gibson County Online, Owensboro Online, Vincennes Online, Madisonville Online, Hopkinsville Online, Paducah Online, Bowling Green Online, Pennyrile Online, Purchase Area Online, and SW Indiana Online (SWINOL). And frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m forgetting one or two of those!
Eventually, Evansville Online was acquired by Q-Comm (in April of 1998) and morphed into a telecom company. It underwent many name changes along the way, but the Evansville Online homepage stayed operational until April of 2013. And technically, Evansville Online was never the company name – the first company name was World Connection Services. World Connection Services became Network WCS, then Community Telephone (from the Q-Comm acquisition), then Cinergy Communications, then Norlight — which was then acquired by Windstream in 2010. If you try to pull up www.evansville.net today, you’ll be redirected a portal for Windstream’s Internet service.
We knew we were onto something with this Internet thing, but I don’t think we knew it would be as integrated into our lives as it is today.
If you have an old EOL story, I’d love to hear it!