On any given day, you can find Mike Lawrie sitting on the patio with a cup of tea in his hand or watering his plants. His wife, Christine, plays scrabble on Fridays. He prefers to dress in khaki shorts and a cotton shirt in the summer heat. This is the 75-year-old who brought the internet to Africa, making it possible for kids, and their parents, to watch movies, play games and surf the World Wide Web from their homes.
His vigour as the father of the internet in South Africa is reflected in his twilight years. He also brought the internet to this retirement village in Pretoria where he is teaching his neighbors how to use their cell phones.
“We’re having a whale of a time doing it. It’s keeping me busy. But today for the first time, one of the old ducks came with a Samsung S4. She’s got a grandchild who lives here with us, and he knew exactly how to use this phone. This kid can’t be 10 years old. It’s fantastic. If I told this kid, 10 years before you were born, there was no internet, he would look at me and say ‘what the hell are you talking about?’”
When the sun was high on this summer day, the friendly and polite Lawrie offers a glass of iced water and biscuits on his shady patio, ringed with dozens of succulents in pots.
Lawrie’s journey begins in Cape Town where he grew up with a flair for mathematics and science. He struggled to find a job, until he turned to punched card machines, the primitive form of computer programming.
“It was the early computer stuff. Ever wondered why there are 80 columns on a screen? It’s from the punch card system,” says Lawrie.
Along came 1962. Computers were into their second generation and were a little smaller; they could now fit into a lounge, recalls Lawrie. He was one of the few people in South Africa who could work on them.
A purchase made by Rhodes University of an ICT 1301, in 1965, changed everything for Lawrie. The computer had to have a technician. It meant 25-year-old Lawrie moved to Grahamstown, from Cape Town, with his wife, on her 21st birthday, to babysit the ICT 1301 at the university’s computer lab.
“You had to rattle electronic circuits to check for faults. You hit it with a hammer… tap, tap, tap… if the computer still runs it means there is nothing wrong and you move onto the next one. They made them to last. It was a great machine to work on. It taught me computing through and through. These days techies haven’t got a clue about how a machine works.”
The backwater could’ve been the last place you would expect a computer techie to thrive, but Lawrie did.
“Grahamstown has no great industries. It has no electrical noise. Electrically it’s a quiet town. We arrived in November and came back to Cape Town in December, and told people about this pokey little town. The next year we went home, to Cape Town, the same streets you have lived in all your life now looked narrow.”
To say Lawrie is a mere techie is an understatement: he brought the net to Africa, as an experiment, in his own time.
“The doing of it was pure technical. It was fun, it wasn’t a project. It wasn’t our job at the university to specifically do it. It was never part of the reports for the university. The main thing was to run a computer service in the university. Low and behold we tweaked the system and got it working.”
Lawrie took the first step in linking the world in Grahamstown. With 100 meters of copper wire he set up a primitive computer network that connected the physics department to the university mainframe. He then tried to connect something a bit farther, his house, two kilometers away.
“We found out that if you take two wires from Telkom, then the South African Postal Service, you can put five volts in this side you get five volts on the other end. If you jumper it, [the computer] thinks a modem is connected to the other end.”
By 1985, Lawrie developed an internal email system. Academics could now speak to each other on campus through their computer. Its commonplace now, science fiction then.
The next phase took three years, Lawrie wanted to connect to other universities. The issue was some used IBM computers; the university used a VAX operated computer.
“Low and behold we got the thing to work, using IS protocols. This was magic, connecting two independently controlled computer systems. By 1988, we could take a VAX computer, take an email, put it into our homegrown system, pull it out again, pull it through a sausage machine and then make it an IBM mail and send it off to Potchefstroom,” he says.
It dawned on Lawrie that the system had the potential to send an email around the world.
Lawrie contacted a network called Bitnet that agreed to let South Africa join their network. But, he first needed to get approval from Uninet, run by the CSIR, the government research facility that spearheaded network projects in South Africa.
“I took this proposal to the board, and the board laughed me off. They said I was out of my mind, because Bitnet is run by countries that have a stance against apartheid and would be shut down.”
“I was cheesed off and I don’t get cross that easily. I decided the best thing to do was never to go to a committee again. It’s so easy for a group of people to say it can’t be done.”
Lawrie found an alternative solution in FidoNet, a TCP/IP freebee package designed by Randy Bush in Oregon, in the United States (US), which was smuggled into South Africa on a floppy disk by a friend named Pat Terry.
“This was luck beyond belief,” says Lawrie.
With floppy disk in hand, Lawrie also needed to negotiate an account with the University of Delaware to give him access to the internet. From his computer in Rhodes, Lawrie was able to send mail to Delaware, to Bush in Oregon, to a Unix system, and then over FidoNet.
“The point about the FidoNet was in the testing phase of getting ‘some’ form of international email to work prior to releasing the email service for general use to Rhodes staff and students. This testing was in 1988, the service to Rhodes folk was operational early in 1989.”
“We are now at the point where I can sit at home and I can log into our mainframe, create mail and send it to someone in the US. You would sit at eight o’clock at night and type an email out to this guy, he doesn’t know when it’s written, and writes back. In his email he invites me to come to this conference saying he wants me to come and talk about what we are doing. I then reply back and say great. He then writes back, how did that mail get here so quickly? How could the interchange of email to Africa be so quick? It was like instant. This guy was expecting to get a response from me in three weeks and he got it in about two minutes. This opened eyes all over the place.”
On November 12, 1991, at 10.44AM, Lawrie set up the first permanent link to send mail, via file transfer protocol (FTP), it was a long walk to the internet for Africa.
“He’s quite an anomaly. Even at that time he was a visionary,” says Dinesh Balliah, New and Social Media lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand.
In 2003, Balliah came across Lawrie when reading archives for her master’s degree.
“I found on the internet a bunch of usenet groups, which were archived, by whichever browser was there back then. They were literally archives of text messages sent by individuals over the internet. One of them related to South Africa. It related to the original internet work that existed in South Africa at that. I became interested in following this trail, it became a forensic trail. I picked up people’s names and eventually it led me to Rhodes University where the network was started.”
All roads lead to Rhodes. At the end was a meeting with Lawrie and two days of lessons in internet history. It prompted Balliah to write a book on the history of the internet in South Africa.
“I’ll never forget he told me once ‘Everyone at a university complains about how students are only downloading porn, and I look at them and say at least they reading something’. It’s always been his approach. He will complain about how much students consume data, but his approach is let them just play,” she says.
Back in the retirement village, Lawrie is as happy as an email on a server. He presides over the most internet savvy retirement homes in the country.
“What was I driven by? I don’t know. It wasn’t a pioneering nature. It definitely wasn’t the politics of it that motivated it. What’s this concept of emails and why would one want to sit at a computer, type something in and see it somewhere else. How do you go about selling something in a world that doesn’t use email? So I didn’t set about selling it. I set about making it work,” says Lawrie.
You can take the technician out the computer lab but you can’t stop him from joining the dots.