Everything You Needed to Know About the Internet in May 1994

A snapshot of a revolution, just before it really took off.

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How to Use the Internet
ZD Press

Back in 1994, the Internet was the next big thing in technology — hot enough that TIME did a cover story on it, but so unfamiliar that we had to begin by explaining what it was (“the world’s largest computer network and the nearest thing to a working prototype of the information superhighway”).

And in May of that year, computer-book publisher Ziff-Davis Press released Mark Butler’s How to Use the Internet. I don’t remember whether I saw the tome at the time, but I picked up a copy for a buck at a flea market this weekend and have been transfixed by it.

Among the things the book covers:

  • E-mail: “Never forget that electronic mail is like a postcard. Many people can read it easily without your ever knowing it. In other words, do not say anything in an e-mail message which you would not say in public.”
  • Finding people to communicate with: “… telephone a good friend who has electronic mail and exchange e-mail addresses with him or her.”
  • Using UNIX: “UNIX was developed before the use of Windows or pointing and clicking with a mouse … although there are lots of commands that you can use in UNIX, you actually need to know only a few to be able to arrange your storage space and use the Internet.”
  • Word processing: “Initially, you may make mistakes because you think you are in Command mode when you’re really in Insert mode, or vice versa.”
  • Joining mailing lists: “Although it is polite to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to a human, do not include these words in the messages you send to a listserv. They may confuse the machine.”
  • Newsgroups: “Remember, a news reader is a program that enables you to read your news.”
  • Online etiquette: “Flaming is generally frowned upon because it generates lots of articles that very few people want to read and wastes Usenet resources.”
  • “Surfing” the Internet: “Surfing the Internet is a lot like channel surfing on your cable television. You have no idea what is on or even what you want to watch.”
  • Searching the Internet: “If a particular search yields a null result set, check carefully for typing errors in your search text. The computer will not correct your spelling, and transposed letters can be difficult to spot.”

Hey, wait a minute — does How to Use the Internet cover Tim Berners-Lee’s invention, the Web, which had been around for almost three years by the time it was published? Yup, it does, but the 146-page book doesn’t get around to the World Wide Web — which it never simply calls “the Web” — until page 118, and then devotes only four pages to it, positioning it as an alternative to a then popular service called Gopher:

What Is the World Wide Web? Menus are not the only way to browse the Internet. The World Wide Web offers a competing approach. The World Wide Web doesn’t require you to learn a lot of commands. You simply read the treat provided and select the items you wish to jump to for viewing. You can follow many different “trails” of information in this way, much as you might skip from one word to the next while browsing through a thesaurus. The ease of use makes the World Wide Web a favorite means of window-shopping for neat resources on the Internet.

Version 1.0 of the first real graphical browser, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina’s Mosaic, appeared in November 1993. How to Use the Internet mentions it only in passing, describing it as “a multimedia program based on the World Wide Web; it allows you to hear sounds and see pictures in addition to text.” It devotes far more space to Lynx, a text-only browser that you navigated from the keyboard rather than with a mouse. By the time I first tried the Web in October 1994 or thereabouts, Mosaic was a phenomenon and Lynx was already archaic.

Still, by the standards of early 1994, when the book was published, the text-centric Web was already a hit. As it warns:

More and more people are using the Internet, and WWW is a very popular service. For this reason, you may have to wait a long time to receive a document, or, in some cases, you may not even be able to make a connection.

The book’s original owner, whoever he or she may have been, was keenly interested in this whole Internet thing. When I opened it, I found a clipping on universities and other local institutions that offered lessons in going online. And this Post-it note, which reminds me of the instructions on using Windows 95 that I found in a different old computer book that I bought last year, was affixed to the inside front cover:

Post-it Note

In the spring of 1994, How to Use the Internet was probably pretty successful at helping people figure out a newfangled and arcane means of communications. Things progressed so rapidly that it was soon obsolete. But in 2013, it’s useful once again as a reminder of how much the Web has changed the world, and how recently it came to be.


Brings back a lot of memories... like my first IBM Clone


I actually tech reviewed this beauty way back when, as a wee lad. adding to ehurtley's note, I remember the author (great/smart feller) demo'ing Mosaic for me at his house while the book was being written. He totally understood the big wow of it, and what it was going to change. It just wasn't practical to recommend it yet for consumers because it was too slow on whatever ridiculous baud we had for home modems back then...


For an even further step back, check out Harley Hahn's "The internet Complete Reference". The book copyright date inside is 1994, but my copy is signed by Harley on October 23, 1993...there are 15 pages on the Web and he references a list of browsers at CERN...where the Web part of the Internet was born in April 1993.


Lots of books out there like this in the mid 90's.  As was said, they had to cover shell accounts because PPP wasn't common until later.  Depending on where you were, you might not have had a local access number till the late 90's.  AOL didn't have a local number until after the local cable company began offering broadband.


James Gleick and some people ran a service called Pipeline in NYC in the early 90s that used some weird SLIP emulation called PinkSlip. It was very buggy but the only game in midtown if you wanted the net at home. 


Why didn't they cover Mosaic? 

Because in May 1994, dial-up PPP or SLIP was still *VERY* uncommon.  It was far more common to have dial-up access to a UNIX shell account (which is why UNIX shell access is covered on a book about the Internet.)

It wasn't until late 1994 that Portland, OR, a fairly tech-savvy city, got its first commercial dial-up SLIP/PPP provider.  (How do I know? Because a friend and I are the ones who convinced a dial-up UNIX shell access company to offer SLIP.)

Yes, many people had direct connections before then, either through work or college. But this book wasn't aimed at them - it was aimed at home users.


I wrote a book for Random House in 1996 called "The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet." I spent the first half of the book explaining how the net worked and how to access it through AOL, CompuServe, Genie, Prodigy, et al. I think I still have a press account on AOL, for what that's worth. Somewhere I even have a pc with Mosaic on it. 

I did an author appearance at a B&N in NYC in '97 that was covered by C-SPAN. First question from the audience was "Isn't it true that the government is watching everything you do online?" I think I answered, "Yeah, probably."


re: Email -- "Many people can read it easily without your ever knowing it. In other words, do not say anything in an e-mail message which you would not say in public."

I would argue that today's average internet user  still doesn't manage to understand, even that (the nature of e-mail being sent over the network in cleartext,  and the content being potentially accessible to many prying eyes,  unless specially encrypted).