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Resurrecting Prodigy, The World’s Proto-Internet

Before the Internet, there was Prodigy. Extinct for almost 15 years, one hacker is bringing Prodigy back.

Before we had the Internet, we had a sort of proto Internet in the form of Prodigy, which was created in 1984 as part of a joint venture between IBM, CBS, and Sears. Over at the Atlantic, Benji Edwards has written a fantastic article about efforts by programmer Jim Carpenter to recover Prodigy’s lost data.

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Kim Moser

Although there were text-only online services before it, what made Prodigy unique was that it was the first online service with a fully graphical, point-and-click user interface. At its peak, Prodigy had over a million subscribers, all logging into the service daily to check their email, post on forums, check the weather, play video games, and shop online: in short, all of the things that we take for granted as being able to do over the Internet today.

In 1999, Prodigy was shut down. Disingenuously citing the Y2K problem, the real reason Prodigy was killed was because of the rise of the real Internet, the one you’re reading this on today. It was survival of the fittest: proprietary online services like Prodigy were killed off as more flexible, efficient, and open ISPs, or Internet Service Providers, took their place. But millions of forum posts, emails, news articles, and other forms of content stored on Prodigy were lost, seemingly forever.

Prodigy in 1992 (Benj Edwards)

But Carpenter wasn’t content to just leave it at that. In tinkering around with an old copy of Prodigy on his computer, Carpenter discovered a file which locally stored frequently accessed data from Prodigy–what Edwards terms as the digital equivalent of “a mosquito stuck in amber.” Carpenter then figured out a way to recover that data, and save at least some of it from oblivion. And such efforts are incredibly important, because as Edwards notes, it serves as a cultural record of our digital past:

As we invest more of our lives into the electronic realm, corporate decisions to shut down online services without recourse are beginning to resemble digital acts of Nero burning Rome–cultural history and entire communities are trashed in the process.

The Prodigy log-in screen as it looked in 1991, pulled from a STAGE.DAT file by Jim Carpenter. (Prodigy)

If you happen to have old Prodigy back-ups, Carpenter is asking for submissions. I’m tempted to dig out my old floppies: as a writer whose Twitter account still boasts the username he first came up with for Prodigy as an aspiring 10-year-old writer, and named after a monster-hunting private detective whose serialized adventures were published on Prodigy’s long extinct creative writing boards, it’d be wonderful to see what might still possibly be salvaged 25 years later.

Read the full article over at the Atlantic.

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