SIMTEL, or how I lost my virginity on the internet

wsmr-simtel20.army.mil
Simtel20 White Sands Missle Range

After years of doing stuff that wasn’t too interesting – getting married too young, getting divorced too late, auditing payables for Wal-Mart (extremely boring, but lucrative) – I decided to use the Wal-Mart money to go to college.

I was 27 when I entered the Computer Engineering department at the University of Arkansas and was naively determined to graduate before 30. Needless to say, I didn’t make it, and, in fact, I turned 31 two months before graduation day.

I plunged into my first classes in January 1987, and by February was introduced to what was to become a passion of my college years – Simtel.

The internet was young in those days. There were no ISPs, no graphics, and definitely no World Wide Web. I read somewhere recently that at the time there were less than 30,000 hosts on the entire net – and the only way you could get connected was through a university or military site.

We were all young and idealistic. The Age of Aquarius was only ten years in the past, and the internet credo insisted on freedom of every kind. Despite the fact that the whole thing was the brainchild of the DoD, we had all convinced ourselves that the internet was finally going to be the way to stick it to the man.

Requiring passwords was in bad taste,  morally reprehensible, and smelled of capitalism. Everything should be free and open! Many people believed that humanity was about to enter a golden age of intellectual evolution as more and more people got connected – and it was all based on a programmer’s Code of Honor. Share freely, but give credit where credit is due. Hacking your bank account was not even in the picture. What? How silly! The bourgeoisie banks weren’t online – the people were.

There was no commerce on this internet. That didn’t happen until around 1994. Before that, it was our playground. But because there was no commerce. I experienced withdrawal after graduation when I suddenly discovered I was cut off from ‘my’ internet because I no longer had a university login.

You see, the way a university student living off campus got onto the internet in those days was to go home and login to the university network first, then ftp or telnet to wherever you wanted to go from there. You used a dial-up modem over your phone line. For a while, everybody had a 300 baud modem, essentially meaning it ran at 300 bits-per-second. So, if Berners-Lee had invented the web a few years earlier he would have been laughed at. It would have taken 10 minutes to load the simplest web page.

Chat was a few years in the future, but there were bulletin boards, BBS’s, where you could leave messages for people to reply to in non-real-time. It was sort of like checking your email before there was email. There was lots of information sharing, but also lots of gossip. Sort of like how Facebook is today. But without search engines, that’s how we learned about cool places to go. Before Yahoo or Google or Alta Vista (the first successful search engine), everything was word-of-mouth.

Even then, there were cool places to go, and one of them was Simtel. Simtel20 as it was known (because the name had to have exactly eight characters) was hosted by our friends at the DoD direct from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? The address was wsmr-simtel20.army.mil. You could get in via anonymous ftp and download anything and everything, and often the programs included the original source code so you could see how they worked. For someone like me, eager to learn, this was manna from heaven. Simtel also had documentation, instructions for things like how to hack Lotus 1-2-3 so that you could run it without a license key, and porn. Yes, porn! The text-based kind. 

Sadly, Simtel is long gone. A relic of the past that was put out to pasture the same year the internet became a commercial enterprise. But you should know that for one brief shining moment there was a place called Camelot – er, I mean Simtel.

Here’s a mirror site that (at least for the moment) still serves up an original copy of the last Simtel.

Perhaps Wikipedia explains it best:

Simtel originated as SIMTEL20, a software archive started by Keith Petersen in 1979 while living in Royal Oak, Michigan. The original archive consisted of CP/M software for early 8080-based microcomputers. The software was hosted on a PDP-10 at MIT that also ran a CP/M mailing list to which Petersen subscribed.

When access to the particular MIT computer was removed in 1983, fellow CP/M enthusiast Frank Wancho, then an employee at the White Sands Missile Range, arranged for the archive to be hosted on a DECSYSTEM-20 computer with ARPANET access, accessible via FTP at simtel20.arpa, later known as wsmr-simtel20.army.mil.[2] At this time, Simtel began archiving MS-DOS software in addition to its archive of CP/M software. Over time, the SIMTEL20 archive added software for other operating systems, user groups and various programming languages, including the Ada Software Repository, the CP/M User’s Group, PC/Blue, SIG/M(icros), and the Unix/C collections.[2] In 1991, Walnut Creek CDROM was founded by Robert A. Bruce, which helped distribute the Simtel archive on CD-ROM discs for those not wishing, or unable,[3] to access the archive online.[4]

 

 

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