In the spring of 1985, 16 years ago, I was fresh out of high school and looking for something to fill my time with until starting at university in the fall. One night just after Christmas, Heather, a friend of my mother’s from her own university days, from whom I’d been renting a room in Toronto during high school, went to an event at Victoria College. Over the course of the evening, she met the College Provost, who described to her a project run out of the College called Athenians that was looking for eager young volunteers. The next morning Heather described the project to me. And for some reason I pursued the idea and became a volunteer.
Athenians is, in essence, an after-the-fact census of ancient Athens, Greece. Technically the project is “A Prosopography of Ancient Athens.” That is to say “A study, often using statistics, that identifies and draws relationships between various characters or people within a specific historical, social, or literary context” (from American Heritage® Dictionary).
Most importantly for me, the project was built around a database called Empress that ran on a UNIX-based computer. And so, in amongst my data entry of the details of the ancients, I got an opportunity to take UNIX out for a ride, and was thus able to learn all about the world of email and newsgroups.
I also managed to piss some people off: more than once I managed to ask one too many questions of the kindly sys admins who managed the U of T computer centre. They appeared ready to tolerate my presence on their system as long as I didn’t raise too much of a fuss. Or maybe they just didn’t know I was there. Remember, this was back in the days of a kinder, gentler network.
This was also back in the days where Internet (not that it was called that yet) email worked by store-and-forward. I would send an email to someone in California and it would travel, by hop, skip and jump, from Toronto to Waterloo to Columbia to Ohio and so on, usually travelling one or two hops a night, so that email across the country and back might stretch out over two weeks.
I owe them a great debt of gratitude, and they can take some pride in knowing that the online work I’ve done since is in the image of those early experiences.