Accessing the line mode browser with 1960s tech

The line-mode browser, a phone and a Teletype machine make for a winning combination

Computer hobbyist Suhayl Khan shows us how to access the line-mode browser using 1960s tech. (Video: Suhayl Khan)

Computer hobbyist Suhayl Khan recently got in touch to showcase some of his vintage electronics collection. In the video above, Khan, who works at the Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning in Toronto, Canada, accesses the first website through the line-mode browser using a modem and terminal that predate the World Wide Web. The first website project got in touch to find out more about his hobby.

First website project: When did you first become interested in old computer hardware? 

Khan: About 10 years ago I was fortunate to meet Richard (Rick) Munro, a colleague at Humber who has since passed away. He would tell wonderful stories, especially about his time working at the Canadian Press. He mentioned the teletypewriters they used, which I found intriguing. I recall him googling how someone managed to connect a teletype to the Internet and I thought at the time this would be something really neat to try out.

Around 2010 I started bringing out my old Commodore 64, collecting more Commodore related hardware and in 2011 I got my first ASR-33 teletype and IMSAI 8080. From 2010 I really started to get interested in old computer hardware. Kevin Adams, another colleague at Humber, also collected vintage computers. He was a great resource and generous with his time explaining his massive collection.

What are your earliest experiences of the World Wide Web?

Around 1995-1996 I was dialling into Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). I also ran one myself. Around 1997 AOL (America Online) became popular in my circle of friends. At high school we would get these complementary computer newspapers that contained a free disk of AOL (America Online). My friends and I would open a free trial account, get dial-in access to AOL which in turn would provide us with access to the World Wide Web (if I recall correctly).

When the trial subscription was up we would get another computer paper, harvest the free floppies (they must each have had a unique trial code) and open another trial account. Later on a friend of mine subscribed to a dial in ISP and gave me his login credentials that I used to access the Web. I also remember a store that would sell CDs (likely with a trial code/password - they were probably not meant for resale) that would allow about a month access to the Internet thereby providing access to the World Wide Web. The experience on the Web was like night and day compared to BBSs. Information was not limited to just a single machine that you dialed into but instead to a vast network of systems across the world, all in a format that could be easily viewed in a browser.

How long did it take you to get the equipment working for the video?

I received my first ASR-33 Teletype around May 2011. Dave Hunter of the Telephone Museum of Prince Edward Island and Teletype mechanic Wayne Durkee helped me via email with making adjustments and provided important advice. Wayne and Bill Degnan helped me to understand the interfacing connections on the teletype which allowed me to subsequently use the current loop-to-RS232 converter correctly. I picked up the second and third teletype in June 2011 and May 2012. As the three teletypes were in varying conditions I decided that I would like to have them professionally restored (one of them needed to be converted as well).

In May 2012 I drove to Vermont, USA and left the three teletypes with Wayne to be restored. In August 2012 I drove back to Vermont, USA to pick them up. He did an amazing job!

Around June 2013 I began the task of finding a Linux or UNIX system that would work well with the Teletype. For example, I was unable to find a version of Ubuntu or FreeBSD to display a backslash to denote a capital letter when the output is all in capitals. Finally I tried Solaris 8 and it worked great.

I then needed to decide what I would like to do on the UNIX box with the teletype. I decided on using the teletype to view a web page. I soon realized a modern text-based browser would be too sophisticated for the Teletype (which is not cursor-addressable). I was thinking about using telnet and issuing the GET command to "view" a web page - not the most eloquent solution. Finally I came across the line-mode browser, which worked perfectly. It was able to print a website line by line using only carriage returns and line feeds.

A modem was required and I wanted to use something of similar vintage to the Teletype. I was going to build one from a 1980s BYTE magazine, however when I came across the Livermore model B on eBay I just had to get it.

It fit perfectly with time period of the teletype. In February 2014, I cleaned up the Livermore, replaced a bulb, rejuvenated the rubber on the acoustic couplers and removed the disintegrating foam. Next I spent time troubleshooting issues with interfacing the Livermore modem with the Teletype. It appears the loop converter I was using was not RS232 compliant (it would output voltages from 0-5V). After using a different current loop converter that provided negative voltage levels everything was good.

March 2014 I did the filming.

Do you have a favourite item in your collection? 

The ASR-33 Teletype (Terminal) and IMSAI 8080 (Computer).

The modem and UNIX system you use both predate the birth of the web. What were they used for in their original contexts, and why did you decide to showcase them in your video? 

The modem and ASR-33 Teletype (Model 33) do predate the birth of the web, and the version of UNIX on the remote Solaris 8 system is from around the year 2000. The ASR-33 Teletype would have been used for connecting to remote time-sharing systems.

The teletype could also be used to directly connect to a computer that did not have any terminal such as an Altair 8800 or IMSAI 8080 (with the appropriate card). One use of the modem would be for connecting a terminal to a remote time-sharing system via the telephone system. 

I felt that the ASR-33 Teletype represented an important part of computer history - this is how many seemed to have interacted with computers at that period - and therefore decided to showcase it and the modem which was of the same vintage. Suddenly one could access a remote time-sharing system if you had a terminal such as the ASR-33 teletype in your school or even at home - see this BBC video from 1967.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

It is fascinating that 25 years after the invention of the World Wide Web we can access it using a version of the same line-mode browser via a modern graphical terminal or almost 25 years prior to the web on the classic Model 33 teletype that pioneers such as Dennis Ritchie would have used.

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