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13 Vintage Internet Ads Begging You to Get Online

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These days, the internet is an integral part of our lives—but it wasn’t long ago that most people had never even heard of the net, let alone used it. Here are a few fun vintage ads from a time when ISPs actually had to sell people on the idea of using the World Wide Web.

Special thanks to Wired Reread, which features scans of old ads from Wired magazine back issues.

1. You Know What She Doesn’t Like

Loni here is a bad girl with no time for knitting discussions. Don’t you want to meet her? Prodigy put this sexy gal at the front and center of this ad from 1995.

2. One Free Call Gets It All

Sex sells, and so does the WWF (the previous name of the WWE). If you thought all the largely unregulated porn sites were over the top in the '90s, you obviously never saw AOL’s WWF portal that was apparently “The Hottest Place In Cyberspace.”

3. Working to Put Service First

Ah the good old days, when two business colleagues could bond by filing their tax returns together from this 1999 ad.

4. Get Flat

It seems that getting your face run over by a steamroller was an attractive option when Pipeline USA released this ad in 1995. At the time, offering a flat rate internet service was a huge deal, since most providers were charging hourly rates—so even something this hideous still seemed like an attractive offer to many customers.

5. That’s Why We Make Modems

These days, we tend to take connectivity for granted. But remember how, before the internet, you had to install the software for anything you wanted to do on your computer's hard drive? This Motorola ad might not have foreseen the popularity of social networks, but otherwise they pretty much nailed how most workers use their days on the computer.

6. Get the Most Out of It

Oh Herbie, you aren’t exactly the poster child for “the cool kids,” are you? That’s OK—as long as you can travel to a galaxy far away while your mom and dad prepare to take a real vacation. What is impressive about this 1983 CompuServe ad is that it names three things we still use the net for: travel booking, financial planning, and gaming.

7. Welcome to Someday

On the other hand, 1982 CompuServe ad writers seemed to believe that white was the only color available for home and clothing design, so they certainly weren’t able to predict everything that would happen in the future (but then again, maybe someday just isn’t yet today).

8. Some Breakthroughs Require Longer Explanations

To explain the Internet today, you’d just have to say “all the cat videos and porn you can imagine." But customers in 1986 needed a little more detailed explanation—especially since cat videos weren’t widely available online at that point.

9. People Like Us

The beauty of this ad is that it really looks like a Geocities page—random, loud, and all over the place. It’s just missing a few dozen pop up ads and some dancing hamster animations. Many of us who started using the net when this ad came out in 1997 still have a touch of nostalgia when it comes to the train wrecks that were Geocities sites.

10. There Is No Wider Door

The concept of Video On Line was pretty revolutionary in 1995, and it would be years before most internet users actually had the technology to handle video streaming in any real capacity. Even so, something about a man chewing a mouse just doesn’t scream “watch videos online” to me. But I guess I wasn’t their target demographic back then.

11. What Excites You?

This ad focused on things that excited Bill Clinton in 1998.

12. A Long, Long Time Ago

If you remember the '90s at all, you remember the constant bombardment of AOL floppy discs and CDs. Amazingly, this ad was from 1993, a year before they decided to introduce their massive distribution of over 300 million pieces of software-turned-coasters.

13. Crank It Up!

This one's not a straight ad, but it tells readers to “get real” ... if you downloaded RealAudio that is. By downloading RealAudio, you would not only be able to listen to radio broadcasts from around the globe and live sports coverage, but even the Oscar Meyer wiener song. How could anyone pass that up?
* * *
When did you get online? Do you remember what ISP you used? Did you have a Geocities page? And what was your search engine of choice?

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NASA // Public Domain
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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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