Mission Impossible: The Compuserve Chapter

There are parts of technology history (frankly, any history) that are thought to be critical to telling the story, and utterly lost. Pieces and fragments will rise up out of the darkness, but a cohesive collection of what once made up a chapter will be thought gone forever.

Sadly, this happens a lot.

But in one special exception, the Computer History Museum found itself with an opportunity to seize the moment.

Compuserve is considered to be the first major online service in the United States. Founded in the era of “time-sharing” services (paying to use a computer during the main owner’s quiet hours), this subsidiary of Golden United Life Insurance moved from 1969 to 1979 in the kind of obscurity befitting a simple business-to-business service providing access to PDP mainframes.

This all changed in 1979 with the rebranding of Compuserve Information Service (CIS), which marketed itself to mainstream computer users, providing chat, games, and storehouses of information for an hourly fee to who ever could afford the phone bills and equipment to do so. It is here that Compuserve (and later services like The Source, America On-Line and Prodigy) brought a bulk of folks online for the first time.

Book page image
Catalog of Compuserve Games, 1984.

This service flourished through the 1980s and 1990s, and in what should be considered a reductive and surface description of the situation, slowly broke apart via acquisitions, shifting priorities and the dominance of the World Wide Web providing many aspects of what Compuserve had previously done exclusively.

By the time this 2000s-era chapter was over, Compuserve was more a brand and a memory. But it had still reigned in the minds of many as the beginning, the launching pad for a lot of what people came to expect the online world to provide.

It was assumed most of the history of Compuserve was gone – the hardware, software and documentation scattered to the winds.

Not so.

As explained in this blog entry that literally reads like a movie script, the Computer History Museum has acquired, sorted, and added a major amount of Compuserve’s archives to their stacks. The collection had been sitting for decades, and was soon to be disposed of, when it was offered to CHM and they accepted.

Among these items that have been recovered are documents that are being given to the Internet Archive to scan and place online – instructions on how to operate a Compuserve service.

These opportunities to recover assumed-lost materials are extremely rare, but hope springs eternal that in rooms, attics and file cabinets around the world, there possibly lurk further discoveries, and happy endings. Almost like a movie.