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Rex Sorgatz

I'm not passive aggressive. I'm aggressively passive.

feb 8
2008

Wired 1.1: An Archaeology

Wired magazine turns 15 years old this month. This column looks back at the very first issue.

Wired didn't even bother with a Beta release. It bustled onto the publishing scene 15 years ago this month, chirping like a broken modem and shrink-wrapped as a point release: Issue 1.1.

Peeling back those matte pages now, one can't help falling victim to a bit of nostalgia for this town crier of the proto-digital era. There was no logical reason that this magazine should even have existed in 1993. Clinton/Gore had just been sworn in, and no one was talking about the "Information Superhighway" yet. Words like baud and Usenet and ISDN hadn't even been surrendered to the dustbin of digital history.

Need more historical perspective? There weren't even any URLs in the first issues of Wired! The World Wide Web barely existed, and there was no Mosaic browser on which to view it anyway. Goatse wasn't even a dirty thought yet.

And yet there it was, the premiere issue: that blocky logo and Bruce Sterling peering out from the cover. For a brief moment, it seemed as though the nerds were about to take over the world... right up until the suits showed up a few years later to pummel them with their briefcases of money.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves in this story. Let's take a look at that first issue, piece by piece.

Staff Box

Started by Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, who moved to California from Holland in 1991, Wired opened with a staff box of unknowns, at least to the traditional media world. Many of them would become the most important technology writers of the next decade.

Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor, came from the Whole Earth Catalog and the WELL. John Battelle, who would later found Federated Media and write the definitive book on Google, was the managing editor. The rest of the staff box was sprinkled with names that are now recognized as tech pundits of various stripes: Howard Rheingold, Bruce Sterling, Stewart Brand, John Markoff, Michael Wolff, and Nicholas Negroponte. And of course, the "Patron Saint," Marshall McLuhan.

(An aside: it's difficult to remember how McLuhan was perceived pre-Wired. Though certainly a revered scholar in his lifetime [let us not forget Annie Hall], I also seem to recall a huckster backlash around this time. But three years after the premiere issue of Wired, McLuhan was on the cover of the magazine. Today, even his worst theories get roundly quoted, especially by blowhards like me.)

Tired / Wired

Magazine editors tend to hyperbolize their craft, and nothing gets deliberated with more over-analysis than the opening pages of a magazine. The conventional wisdom is that the blurby, picture-filled front pages set the philosophical agenda of a magazine. The "front of the book," as they call it, psychologically defines who should be reading this rag by persuading you to join the club of similarly excellent tastemakers. So the Wired/Tired Index probably seemed like a stroke of genius. It was the perfect way to divide the world into two simple categories of people: There are those who are wired -- they get it! And there are those are tired -- they don't!

It's classic hippie logic. And congratulations! Because you're reading Wired, you're in the right category.

In retrospect, it's unclear which side of this great divide the actual editors themselves fell on. On its maiden voyage, Wired deemed Nintendo a tired entity, while the long-forgotten gaming console 3DO was celebrated as wired. And for mysterious reasons, painting (painting?) crept into wired status, while performance (performance?) was strangely shelved as tired. But the clincher certainly had to be declaring REM (who had just released their best album, Automatic for the People) tired, but passing wired status onto midwest alt-country act The Jayhawks. This is akin to saying that Graham Parsons was a great DJ.

Other front-of-the-book items: a preview of a cult film called Jurassic Park, a review of a print zine called bOING bOING, and a report on a crazy new technology that could free up your cable tv lines for phone calls.

Features

For all the peculiar editorial choices in the early issues of Wired, the strangest must certainly be giving Camille Paglia license to talk about Marshall McLuhan.

But the editors actually turned this stagnant interview into something a little funny by reprinting Paglia's handwritten edits scrawled over the top. From the first issue, one could already foresee that Wired was going to be a good publication, but this bit of whimsy suggested that it might just go beyond being the next Mondo 2000. This brand of self-awareness only comes along in decade-long chunks: a '60s Rolling Stone, a '70s Esquire, an '80s Spy.

Or it was just a dumb prank. Whatever.

The cover story, penned by Bruce Sterling, is one in a long history of virtual war stories that Wired would publish. It forgoes references to Ender's Game, but doesn't leave out video game comparisons. "It's modern Nintendo training for modern Nintendo war." Considering that the page directly preceding this is an ad for a new book called The Windows 3.1 Bible, it seems difficult to image how revolutionary these virtual war games could have been.

But what the other features portend has become a Wired hallmark: the clash between culture and technology. John Markoff's story on cellphone hacking dissects a digital subculture in a way that would be replicated several times in the proceeding decade. Similarly, the Otaku feature was prescient in its analysis of Japanese society before it had become a Western obsession. And an interesting note: the story on Richard Stallman's obstacles toward free software doesn't include the phrase "open source" because it had yet to even be popularized.

The Ads

Here's the prevailing question when persuing the ads in this issue: were they as unintelligible then as they are now? The two companies that bought this issue's very first ad and very last ad -- Origin and Trans Rebo, respectively -- were probably as unknown then as they are now. And it's unlikely that the 100,000 copies that the first issue of Wired sold on the newsstand helped them in any way.

A few pages in, the most emblematic page of the first issue of Wired appears.

He looks like an old John "I'm a PC" Hodgman! And look closely -- that screen really says "Fax Transmittal."

Oh, to be young again.

Design

Early Wired is often remembered for its edgy design aesthetic. The disillusion of this myth that you will feel in looking back at the first issues of Wired is comparable to when MTV replays those once-edgy Pat Benatar videos.

The Negroponte Index

MIT scholar, Wired investor, and OLPC creator -- Nicholas Negroponte is himself something of a patron saint to the digerati. But he's clearly crummy at making predictions.

In his inaugural back-page column, Negroponte takes on the emerging technology known as High-Definition Television. With the goggles of a decade-and-a-half to look through, the opening line hits you like a DeLorean hurled from the past: "High-definition television is clearly irrelevant."

Negroponte contends that the future will actually be fuzzy, arguing that it's a mistake to believe "achieving increased image quality is the relevant course to be pursuing." As anyone who's pored over debates about 1080 vs. 720 and counts their HDMI jacks like their children, this looks like the crazy ramblings of a fuzzy-headed college professor.

To be fair, the futurist gets it half right, such as when he prognosticates a burgeoning on-demand culture but mistakingly fetishizing perspective viewing:

What is needed is innovation in programming, new kinds of delivery, and personalization of content. All of this can be derived from being digital. The six-o'clock news can be not only delivered when you want it, but it also can be edited for you and randomly accessed by you. If the viewer wants an old Humphrey Bogart movie at 8:17 pm, the telephone company will provide it over its twisted-pair copper lines. Eventually, when you watch a baseball game, you will be able to do so from any seat in the stadium or, for that matter, from the perspective of the baseball. That would be a big change.

Sounds awesome! Too bad approximately 1 kjillion dollar were spent last year on cramming living rooms with big ass TVs instead.

Colophon

I remember exactly where I was when the first issue of Wired was handed to me. Exiting a coffee shop called The Urban Stampede -- the only coffee shop within 70 miles of the small midwest state school I was attending -- a friend accosted me, clutching a mysterious magazine with a striped spine. He shoved it in my hands, exasperated, "You have to see this." Wired instantly became required reading for all of our friends.

And our favorite part of the magazine was buried in the back, in the pages that articles jumped to: the colophon.

There were probably two reasons why we loved the colophon: 1) we had no idea what a colophon was, and 2) it showed the means of production of the magazine. The colophon listed the computers (Apple Macintosh II), the printers (HP Scanjet IIc), the layout software (Quark XPress), and even the routers (Farallon). And then it concluded with some music (Dinosaur Jr., Curve, k.d. lang, etc.) and a final heading for "drugs of choice" (caffeine, sugar, Advil).

It sounds corny, but we loved this magazine because its creators drank the same soda as us. These people actually had opinions about routers and ethernet cables!

I don't know if this is surreal or predictable, but it's certainly obvious now: futurism and nostalgia are intricately linked with each other. Revisiting the early pages of Wired reminds one of a time when there was an underground culture -- when not everything was known by everyone else. Can you remember a time when there were secrets? It sounds so naive.

But it also sounds tremendously boring. Thankfully, we'll always have the future.

41 comments

What a wonderful post.

I love/have loved Wired like no other magazine - in truth I've never been a deep magazine guy. In other words, I've always tend to flip and find my info in snippets - tiny little pieces of writing and then move onto the next thing.

Wired always was/is different. I'm not sure why.

I don't remember this specific issue but I do remember first finding it and thinking *shit* this is about all the crap I've been thinking about.

And that was a nice feeling.

posted by Gavin at 1:22 AM on February 8, 2008

Super-super-awesome piece, Rex. I love a) the masthead full of now-even-more-famous names (what's the current equivalent? what masthead, online or off, presages the future?) and b) the ads.

posted by Robin at 2:14 AM on February 8, 2008

Thanks for this. I actually still remember seeing a TV ad for Wired before the first issue came out (how did they afford that? I don't know). I had the first issue when it came out, but ruined it by highlighting all the interesting bits with marker. Of course, I was 13 and had no idea what kind of collectible I had.

Now I only read Wired when I'm on a plane. The long-form articles still seem to be pretty good, but the rest is a bit dull.

posted by Josh Santangelo at 2:27 AM on February 8, 2008

The Colophon was one of my favorite parts of the magazine as well!

And, personally, I think you are doing the design work of John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr a bit of a disservice by comparing their work to a Pat Benetar video. Yes, it looks a little dated now, but it was striking back then. Plus, they were doing AMAZING things with spot colors and print techniques. Yes, the neon stuff was overplayed, but their pre-press and production art was second to none, IMHO. What is commonplace now in graphic design and print production, they were doing with what amounted to sticks and stone tablets. I worked in pre-press and a color houses in the 90s and Wired always blew me away with what they were able to pull off.

Great article, though! Thank you. We recently re-modeled and I found my trove of ancient Wireds. That was a fun afternoon, thumbing through that past.

My other favorite section (from slightly later): hURL!

posted by jon deal at 2:41 AM on February 8, 2008

Hey, not to be too blowing of horn, mine, but you left out my little contribution to Wired 1. The sex element.

"This is a Naked Lady"

It's over here:

http://americandigest.org/mt-archives/this_is_a_naked.php

posted by vanderleun at 3:32 AM on February 8, 2008

Interesting stuff. Where to get a copy?

posted by Philipp Lenssen at 5:37 AM on February 8, 2008

My introduction to Wired was a free copy of issue 1.3 at Comdex in 1993. It featured Sonic the Hedgehog on the cover. I've stuck with the thing through the irrational exuberance of the late 90s, and the exploding bubble of soon after. I find that I enjoy it just the same today as I did then.

posted by Doug at 8:28 AM on February 8, 2008

@jon: Yeah, I should have spent more time talking about the design stuff. You're right -- the design did all sorts of interesting things. The two sub-points I was trying to make: 1) design doesn't age well and 2) the incendiary design that we know as the Wired style didn't really emerge until a few issues into flight.

@vanderleun: You're right! I started to write about that too, but cut it because it was getting too long.

posted by Rex at 9:03 AM on February 8, 2008

Nice job, Rex. Part euology, part criticism -- both well done. I confess to having an almost complete set of Wireds right from the first issue to the mid-1990s, which my wife gets mad at me for lugging around every time we move. I still remember that rush that came from getting a new issue. Now I hardly read print magazines at all, whether it's Wired or anything else.

posted by Mathew Ingram at 10:14 AM on February 8, 2008

Re: "debates about 1080 vs. 760" -- I reckon it should be 720.

Otherwise as a relatively new Wired reader (I thought the magazine looked the same in 2005 as it had in 1995 when I first heard of it) all I can say is: excellent piece.

posted by OlliS at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2008

@Rex: Thank you for this post.

@Doug: Sonic was on the cover of 1.6:

http://www.wired.com/wired/coverbrowser/1993

Speaking of 1.3, does anyone remember seeing multiple covers? Wired's cover browser shows the Peter Gabriel cover, but I ended up buying a second copy of 1.3 with Mitch Kapor on the cover thinking it was a new issue!

posted by Greg at 12:09 PM on February 8, 2008

@OlliS Oops, yep, thanks for the typo fix.

posted by Rex at 12:15 PM on February 8, 2008

One of the funnier tidbits about that issue (which I still have sitting on a shelf) is that NN's back-page essay is addressed from "nicholas @ internet"  Wired didn't trust us to understand e-mail addresses in issue 1.1. They published a real (real-looking, anyhow) address in 1.2 though.

posted by Adam Rice at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2008

Never cut the sex, Rex.

posted by vanderleun at 12:50 PM on February 8, 2008

great post. Yet Another Wired Reader.

posted by Thejesh GN. at 1:11 PM on February 8, 2008

For me, Wired took the place of Omni. When I was a kid, I had an Omni magazine subscription - back when it was very large and full of great stuff about the future. Of course, it died a slow, painful death. Wired kind of filled that part of me that wanted exuberant futurism and cool geeky current events.

It's had ups and downs, but it's still the first magazine I reach for at the airport.

posted by Scott at 1:17 PM on February 8, 2008

Ooh, whenever you write a long piece, feel free to send it to me. If I saw this last night I would have put it on Gawker.

posted by Nick Douglas at 2:05 PM on February 8, 2008

1983: I was wearing a cheap suit, standing around a CES booth full of cheap CD multimedia software, when the WIRED folks came around and set up a dump across the aisle. A dump full of free copies of Wired #1.

As an EFF member, sci-fi nerd, and Whole Earth Review reader I knew who Sterling, Kevin Kelly, Negreponte, and Stewart Brand were. Seeing 'em all in one place, in a slick magazine . . . wow.

It was immensely validating. I'd been babbling to my co-workers about Ted Nelson's Xanadu and the Internet and cyberspace for years. Here was a zine that not only talked about that stuff, but cast it all as vitally important.

Validating, and humiliating. The world finally seemed to be catching on, and here I was in a cheap suit, demonstrating CDs with badly scanned childrens' books and third-rate family encyclopedias on them. I started taking CS classes the following fall, and looking around for grad school programs.

I arranged for a dump for our booth, and went home with maybe a dozen copies crammed in my luggage.

posted by Stefan Jones at 2:34 PM on February 8, 2008

Duh. That should be 1993.

posted by Stefan Jones at 2:50 PM on February 8, 2008

Brings back memories. In fact I have a copy of that issue here at work that I kept since it was the very first. I also have been a subscriber since very early on and have every single issue. The sad thing is that I hardly have time to read them anymore but the subscription is so cheap I keep renewing. It kind of sucks that about a year or so ago they switched to a more narrow traditional magazine size.

posted by George C. at 5:35 PM on February 8, 2008

Great article. Whilst doing a clear out a couple of years back I could not entertain the thought of throwing my copies away. I also have all copies, bar one, of the short lived UK only version.

The Nicholas Negroponte predictions about HD aren't that outlandish. People download encoded TV, buy pirate DVDs and watch video on their iPods.

posted by Pacey at 6:48 PM on February 8, 2008

Wired was the shit back then. I loved this magazine so much, every issue had mind-blowing articles - and mind-blowing designs that sometimes made it hard to read said articles. It was fantastic.

Then in the late 90ies it became a sellout dotcom mag, as idiotic as $50M of funding for pets.com.
And after the dotcom era it became a boring wishy washy rag. It's old. Wired aged faster than the rest of us.

One thing remained steady: I never liked Negroponte's articles. Never found his ideas interesting or practical.

posted by nikolaus heger at 6:49 PM on February 8, 2008

Stacks & stacks of Wired 1.01 were distributed for free at the 1993 CES. I recall thinking at the time that Negroponte's backpage jab at Hi-Def TV was just an envious snark at all the HD monitors (CRTs) seen at the CES. By 93 HD broadcasting was already old hat in japan.

posted by Greg at 6:52 PM on February 8, 2008

"Sorgatz." What kind of name is that ? They stole the whole thing, topics, editorial stance and, most importantly, the innovate graphic look of Wired from Mondo 2000 magazine. You overpaid illiterate ahistorical numb nutsz

posted by Charles Eames at 7:02 PM on February 8, 2008

My first issue was the one with William Gibson on the cover (1.2?). I picked it up at WaldenBooks (!). His picture and the cover headlines were enough; I bought it without even opening it and subscribed the next day.

I knew they were on to something when I noticed that many of the tech stories I hear or read about in the mainstream media, or that came up in conversations with coworkers, were ideas I had just read about in Wired. They had to be at least six months ahead of the curve!

Still the only magazine I read all the way through, cover to cover.

posted by Mark Crummett at 10:43 PM on February 8, 2008

I started reading Wired sometime in the first few issues - it had to be 1993, because I was a senior in high school.

My favorite article is still the one about underground tunnels at various universities. Because of it, I ended up with a "work study" job in college and access to all the old buildings and spaces used for storage.

posted by Bill Bradford at 12:10 AM on February 9, 2008

I think I hear either Pearl Jam or Nirvana playing faintly in the background of this story.

My Vibe mag took up too much room (because of the large format) for me to save all my Wired issues.

posted by taulpaul at 12:28 PM on February 9, 2008

I still have mine, dunno why I kept it but I did. Maybe because back in that day I collected comic books, and if I saw a first issue of anything I had to buy it.

posted by Coreburn at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2008

As a design student at the time the colophon was always insightful. I would also shout for the letters page which were always entertaining and their feature of pics of the oddball envelopes they would arrive. I stopped buying the magazine when the ad count just got absurd. Especially the splicing up of long articles between ads and too many multiple "continued on page 56, 78, 23, 123" etc.,
I'd be interested to see a height comparison after 15yrs - in the left pile the content and the right all the ads...

posted by dave at 12:43 PM on February 9, 2008

Hey man,

As a lifelong WIRED reader... who is now a WIRED editor, I really appreciate this post. You really captured what it was all about, and what we keep striving to do. Thanks!

posted by JOE at 2:49 PM on February 9, 2008

Of course, a ScanJet IIc wasn't a printer at all, but a flatbed scanner.

posted by nitpicker at 6:01 PM on February 9, 2008

The Urban Stampede in downtown Grand Forks, ND?

posted by paul at 1:33 AM on February 10, 2008

ooh, whenever you write a long post be sure to not send it to the lazy blogger who can't be bothered to add your rss feed to his bloglines.

posted by ej at 1:37 AM on February 10, 2008

Don't be so hard on Nicholas about his statements about HD in 93. He was right on the money. He was mostly arguing a point against ANALOG HD standards like HD-MAC. He might not have predicted that everyone would go out and buy an HD set 15 years later, but he might have saved a lot of people from throwing out their useless analog HD sets in 1997.

posted by Mexico City at 2:38 AM on February 10, 2008

Truly excellent post. I had completely forgotten the colophon but I loved it as well.
The best part about Wired was in it's heyday, you got free things - such as the long forgotten Cue Cat (Which I still have, branded with WIRED on it's end) and an American Express smart card reader when they started embedding smart chips into their cards.

Though I really haven't paid much attention to it for the past several years, it was a good one.

posted by Jeremy D Pavleck at 5:33 PM on February 10, 2008

I got turned on to Wired at issue 1.3 and have read every word published since. I credit it with nursing me into the Internet age and keeping me informed on everything technocultural. It has fueled and informed countless intelligent conversations for me. Now my 11-year-old son has caught on and he snags the latest issues from the mail pile before I get home from work and I dont get to read it until he has digested it fully. I think Im going to have to get him his own subscription.

Rex, I have followed your blog for many years. When I started seeing your pieces appear in the pages of Wired it made me realize why I was drawn to your site in the first place. Affirmation of your coolness. Way to go.

posted by RonPadz at 1:48 PM on February 11, 2008

@Scott
I too was raised on Omni and am glad someone else has made the connection. I don't remember if they stopped publishing it first or if it just became too "Area 51" for me but for many years it sparked my imagination for futurism and technology. Then Wired came along years later and totally filled that gap for me (albeit with more credibility). Wired's use of experimental graphics and typography as well as their overall design concept owes much to Omni. I miss the science fiction stories and book excerpts but Wired clearly has enjoyed greater cultural relevance.

posted by RonPadz at 2:18 PM on February 11, 2008

I used to keep all of my back issues of Wired in a stack on the closet floor -- until Wired.com came along and made all the content available on line. Though I never went back into the old issues I kind of wish I had kept them for posterity's sake. I also now realize that Wired magazine is about more than just the content -- it's also about form and design.

posted by RonPadz at 2:21 PM on February 11, 2008

Terrific write-up.

> Wired didn't even bother with a Beta release.

Actually, what Louis and Jane were doing in Holland was publishing a nearly forgotten text-heavy magazine called "Electric Word". They took the groundbreaking attitude that instead of writing about printers, monitors, and software, they would write about the cool things people were doing with them. They folded the magazine after about a year, moved back to the States, found some funding, a major distributor, and that look, and the rest is history.

posted by Eric Promislow at 3:02 PM on February 11, 2008

For those of us with (slight) visual impairment, Wired was, and is, unreadable. Black type on blue, red type on orange, etc. No amount of additional light, enlargement, etc, compensates for their design idiosyncracies. It is very, very poor design from my view.

posted by rexruther at 9:01 PM on February 11, 2008

sigh... brings back lots of memories. Great article, thanks!

I got the first issue of Wired when they were handing them out at MacWorld in 93. I had been at Apple for less than a year at that time and this magazine hit me like nothing else before or since. I may have read more Wired Magazines than any other Magazine...

That MacWorld is also when I was given a copy of Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash as a handout by a game company. Those two influences had a huge impact on that part of my life.

I still have that promotional paperback but my first copy of Wired was read to death. I am missing a lot of the early Wireds because I used to fold them in half and stick them in the vest pocket of my jacket so I would always have something to read.

posted by carldec at 10:38 PM on February 11, 2008




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