Memories of the WELL and its geek-infamous server

When I saw that Salon had put the WELL up for sale, it brought back some interesting memories. I was CTO at Salon when the WELL was acquired, so I was ultimately responsible in an org chart sense for integrating the WELL hardware and software into our environment, although the “real” work was done by people like Doug Herr (still at Salon), Neil Harkins, Pete (“Wolfy”) Hanson, and Brian Dang. I should say up-front that I was never personally active on the WELL, so I definitely don’t write as a been-there done-that old-timer, just someone who saw a slice of WELL time in an operational sense. I could never get my head around things like “picospan”, the horrid command-line interface to the WELL conferences (there was also a web interface). None other than Steve Jobs called picospan the ugliest interface he had ever seen. All I know is that for the rest of my life, I will remember holding my breath at midnight in the Salon server room on New Years Eve 1999 as I waited for the certain implosion of picospan — and perhaps the WELL itself! — as we moved to Y2K. Thanks to the efforts of people like Pete Hanson, that didn’t happen.

To put it bluntly, at the time of acquisition in 1999, I had never seen hardware in such sorry shape as the stuff we inherited from the WELL — we’re talking OLD equipment, though it still worked. I actually recall seeing some loose bits of solder on at least one piece of equipment. While this all presented an aggravating short-term operational problem (one that was relatively quickly solved with the last batch of new Sun equipment I ever bought), it was also cool from a historical standpoint. One of the servers we retired during my tenure was the one that proved to be Kevin Mitnick‘s Waterloo. I always thought it was cool to have that server, and I think I even suggested that we auction it on eBay as an important historical artifact at some point (we never did).

You can see exactly how the WELL played a major role when Tsutomu Shimomura snagged “the prince of hackers” if you read this reprint of a John Markoff story that was in the New York Times back in ’95. Coincidentally, I happened to be working at the local newspaper in Raleigh, NC on the day that Mitnick was arrested in Raleigh (February 15, 1995) and remember the reporter on the case (Grant Parsons — you out there, Grant?) coming into the newsroom with a cassette tape with the taunting answering machine messages from Mitnick to Shimomura wanting to put it on the ‘net (this little newspaper in Raleigh was a real pioneer, launching its first web site in July 1994). I took the cassette from Grant, hopped on my bike, and headed home to digitize the audio on my Power Mac 7100, producing AU files eventually (if you thought podcasting was a hassle. . . .whew). There are AU files of those same messages here, and a lot more about the case than you probably ever wanted to know.

But I digress. Back to the sale of the WELL. . . JD says that the WELL community should buy the WELL. Doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. In any case, best wishes to Gail, Kathy, Pete, and Cynthia!