National Public Telecomputing Network

Submitted by Ben on Sat, 02/27/2021 - 16:24

The head of the Career Development Office at Grinnell encouraged me to apply for a summer Noyce/Intel grant that would allow me to intern anywhere I wanted, so I spent the summer between sophomore and junior years (1996) at the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) in a suburb of Cleveland. NPTN was the parent organization of the Free-Net systems that allowed millions of people to go online before private Internet service providers were widely available.

I had no connections in Cleveland, so I rented a room in a retired lady's basement sight unseen -- she sent me the key in the mail since she would be out of town when I arrived -- and after a quick stop in Oklahoma to borrow Dad's car, I drove to Ohio. I got to the basement and found black mold covering the lower portion of the walls. No sweat, I drove to a store for Lysol and a brush and bucket, and before bedtime I had it scrubbed off. Sometimes I wonder if future health issues might have been avoided if I had left the key under the door and found somewhere more wholesome to stay.

I got to NPTN and found there had been a shake-up and all three of the upper management had abruptly left just a few days before. There were just two employees left and a temp receptionist. I didn't ask nosy questions; I just pitched in to do whatever was necessary, which turned out to be taking over all the logistics of configuring and shipping a dozen complete Free-Net systems to their target communities. Between that and my independent research project, I learned a lot! But here are some of the other lessons I learned...

  • When an organization's founder and CEO commits a federal offense using his work computer, the FBI will freeze all the organization's bank accounts for the duration of the investigation. NPTN went bankrupt shortly after I left. The employees had been working without pay for months on the promise that they would be reimbursed when the accounts were unfrozen. I don't know whether that happened or not.
  • During the investigation, the people who haven't fled have to be very cagey about the details. I didn't learn the full story until the summer was nearly over and the verdict was about to hit the newspapers. The receptionist was much more curious about the situation than I was and confided to me her questions, which seemed conspiratorial at the time but turned out to be absolutely on target.
  • Commuting is stupid. It was a 20 minute drive from the basement I was renting to work, if I didn't hit rush hour. At rush hour it took twice as long, in stop-and-go traffic. I swore never to do it again, and so far I haven't had to.
  • Suburban culture is not small town culture. There was a rainstorm one evening after a sweltering hot day, and when it passed the sun came out, and I walked around the block barefoot, which seemed perfectly natural to me. By the time I got back to the house, a neighbor had called my landlady to inform her that "your boy is walking down the street with no shoes on!" I hadn't met any of the neighbors ... I didn't know they even knew who I was.
  • Being a white guy is not always an advantage. One weekend I was at the downtown Cleveland library and decided to walk to the Case Western Reserve University library, which was much farther away than I thought. The walk took me through a solidly Black neighborhood, and the only place to stop to eat turned out to be run by the Nation of Islam, but I was so worn out that I didn't notice until after I'd ordered. They served me a fish sandwich that was all skin, but I was glad to have it.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the slogan "Think globally, act locally" was already pass√© in 1996. The Free-Net systems I was building for the local affiliates were obsolete by the time they got them. We should have been focusing on building a single, Internet-based platform that any town could use, without needing their own hardware and dial-up lines. But that was not yet clear at the time.