In the early 1990s Jim Teece used to show folks at the Jackson County Fair the latest novelty, a little thing called the Internet.
"What the heck is that?" people would say.
Teece and his wife, Dena Matthews, had founded a software company called Project A in Ashland in 1990, just before the Internet burst onto an unsuspecting world.
"We were developing software but using FedEx to send it to our customers," Teece recalls.
The Internet would change all that.
Teece helped spread the I-word in Jackson County by coming up with the idea for a technology pavilion at the county fair.
"The idea was to introduce this idea of what is the Internet, and what do you do with it," he says.
In less than 20 years, the Internet has gone from an obscure novelty to a seemingly all-encompassing matrix of data and dogma, commerce and government information, prophecy and pornography, music and mayhem and marvels undreamed of in former philosophies.
We work, shop, pay bills, download entertainment, plan vacations, research roots, get in touch with new friends and track down old ones, figure out what to have for dinner and whether it's going to rain, all online.
An estimated 1.5 billion of the world's 6.7 billion people use the Internet.
In North America — excluding developing Mexico — Internet penetration is estimated at 75 percent, with 248 million out of a population of 340 million people online. Probably 150,000 or so of these adults and children live in Jackson County.
We got here with breathless speed. In 1996 there were only about 45 million Internet users in the world. As of mid-2004 more than 63 million domain names had been registered, or about one for every 100 people in the world.
The telegraph, telephone, radio, television and computer had set the stage over a century of development. In the early 1960s a few research scientists were dreaming of a globally interconnected set of computers through which they could access data from each other's sites. It was a dream that would come about not by chance but through sustained investment in research and development by the federal government, private industry and universities (see sidebar).
By 1991 the breakthroughs of Tim Berners-Lee and other scientists would make possible the early Web.
That was the era in which Jim Teece found himself at the Jackson County Fair extolling the wonders of the Web to anybody who would listen. He had to start from go, explaining such unheard-of gizmos and wonders as dial-up modems, browsers, Web sites and ISPs (Internet service providers).
At about the same time, Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland got a tip that the nonprofit SOFIE (Southern Oregon Freedom of Information Exchange) in Medford was failing and might be for sale.
JPR's Paul Westhelle recalls the tipster saying, "I don't know what all this Internet stuff is gonna be about, but you might want to look into it."
That was the early 1990s. JPR wound up buying SOFIE for about $10,000. It was the seed that became Jeffnet. There were about 1,000 users. Teece's Project A in Ashland designed the Web site and provided ongoing technical support.
"It was really more complicated in those days," Westhelle says. "There were all those programs you had to use. Tech support was hard. Jim took it on for us for a couple years."
"When we started getting online, we spent $1,200 for a modem," Teece remembers.
Today there are about two dozen ISPs in Jackson County. But for all its ubiquity the Internet is very much a work in progress, with wireless hubs, satellites and broadband networks now enabling even people in out-of-the-way places to hook up.
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.