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Happy Birthday, dear South African internet!

The internet in South Africa turns twenty years old today. Only a year away from its 21st birthday, we take a look back at this young adult’s birth at Rhodes University, Grahamstown at 10:44am on 12 November 1991.

Way back in 1991, Alan Barrett of the University of Natal and Chris Pinkham at the University of Cape Town were both exploring the possibilities for communication of data offered by networked computing. They soon came across Mike Lawrie – a Rhodes researcher who had managed to find a way to send email internationally.

Having set up Rhodes’ first interactive computing system, Lawrie was successful in persuading the Post Office (now Telkom) to install local leads into his house. Since Grahamstown had only one telephone exchange, he was in what was termed the ‘minimum radius area’ – which meant the copper wire went from the University to the exchange and then directly to his house.

image via TechCentral

Randy Bush's email detailing the first internet test in SA - image via TechCentral

Lawrie followed this up with the development of an email system on Rhodes’ mainframe computer. His next hurdle would be to connect South Africa to the rest of the world – and he eventually found success in linking to FidoNet, the only international network that would agree.

In 1991 Lawrie learnt of TCP/IP protocols and secured a sign-on at the University of Delaware. He also managed to secure a leased line to one Randy Bush, a Portland, Oregon-based geek. And so it was that on 12 November, that leased line carried the first Internet Protocol packets to South Africa. Bush then sent an email with the details of the test to Barret, Jacot Guillarmod and Dave Wilson at Rhodes, and Fred Goldstein at UCT – among others.

That day marked, in Bush’s words, “the first ping from North America to [Sub-Saharan] Africa”.

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