CompuServe: The First Major Online Service Kicked Off in ’79

Retro Staff |  Comments
1983 Ad for CompuServe CIS

1983 Ad for CompuServe (click to enlarge)

Nowadays, an early adopter jumps to download new software or buy new gadgets within days of release. When it came to connecting online at home, though, that title was granted to pretty much anyone who sent email or chatted across the globe pre-1990. That was when CompuServe dominated the field, long before America OnLine (AOL) showed up for computers in 1991 (DOS) and 1992 (Windows).

Compu-Serv Network, Inc was founded by Harry Gard, Sr. in 1969 as a subsidiary of Golden United Life Insurance. Based in Columbus, Ohio, the company’s purpose was to support in-house computer processing for the life insurance company as well as to become an independent business in computer time-sharing for professionals. The plan was to rent time on the company’s midrange computers during business hours. It was spun off as a separate company in 1975 and executives shifted focus from time-sharing services (which relied on customers writing their own applications) to providing packaged applications.

The company name was changed to CompuServe Incorporated in 1977 and it soon became a world leader in development of screening and reporting tools used by Wall Street investment banks.

CompuServe Information Service (CIS) – the official name of the subscriber-based online service – opened its network to folks at home on September 24, 1979. Originally marketed through Radio Shack under the name MicroNET, the service was pricey and limited. In 1981 the cost for access at 300 baud was $5.00 per hour during non-peak hours (6 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and anytime on weekends and holidays) and a whopping $22.50 per hour on weekdays from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Those living outside major cities whereas there was a local CompuServe phone number also had to pay long-distance charges. Key features at the time were news services, electronic mail, bulletin boards, educational programs, financial programs, securities information and games.

While CompuServe worked with newspapers to publish online editions, the most popular features of the service were Email and chat. The “CB Simulator” had 40 “channels” and was one of the first real-time chat programs. Special interest groups and topical forums also gained great popularity.

A user’s CompuServe email address was assigned, not selected. It took the form of octal digits (numbers from 0 to 7) and a comma. An address would look like 71245,446 in-network, and the email address for outside connections would be Prior to opening the doors to the Internet in ’89, CompuServe users could only email other CompuServe users.

To understand connectivity and functions of CompuServe, take a look at this 1981 news segment:



It’s interesting to note that CompuServe filed for US Trademark of the term Email in 1983. It abandoned it’s claim a year later.

Fast, Tremendous Growth… Then…

In early 1981 CompuServe had about 10,000 subscribers. In 1987 there were about 380,000. By the mid-1990s there were millions – enough that CIS accounted for more than half of the company’s revenue.

CompuServe’s biggest, and swiftest competitor was AOL, which had better graphics and monthly rates. By the late ’90s, though, both companies had lost momentum due to the emergence of non-restricting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that allowed users to select the programs they wanted to use for browsing the web or sending email.

Today, CompuServe is a a wholly owned subsidiary of AOL and functions as an ISP.

Were you a CompuServe user? Do you remember your octal digit address?

Last updated: Sep 24, 2012
Filed under: Remember When, Retro Memories Tagged with: computers, retro tech