What was Prodigy Classic?

Prodigy crash
© Photo Copyright TIME Digital Daily

Prodigy was one of the first ISP's. It died at midnight 1 October 1999. Begun in 1984 by IBM, Sears, and CBS (CBS dropped out of the venture in 1986), it took $1 billion and four years to sign up its first customers in a few test cities. In 1990, it launched nationwide. Prodigy managed such graphics as its star-shaped logo at a time when DOS, 300-baud modems, and ASCII text were the standards of the day. While IBM and Sears dreamed of online commerce, Prodigy subscribers had something more unsophisticated in mind: talking and socializing with others. Bulletin boards and chat rooms became the center of attention.

Prodigy thrived in the early '90s and even turned a profit in 1995. But during that year, a newcomer, America Online, did something Prodigy's main competitor, CompuServe, wasn't able to do. AOL surpassed Prodigy in number of subscribers. From there it was a downhill slide. Prodigy didn't take to Windows at first, and as the "World Wide Web" -- the Internet -- waxed in popularity, Prodigy's arcane protocols couldn't keep up. Though it introduced a web browser in 1994, well before AOL or CompuServe, the service as a whole didn't integrate well with the Internet. Current members of Prodigy were happy enough, but as the uninitiated newbies flocked to the Internet, America Online prospered.

In 1996, IBM and Sears sold Prodigy to a management group, and it's now controlled by Mexican billionaire Carlos "Slim" Helu. Prodigy Internet (PI) was introduced as competition against AOL, and the old Prodigy service became to be known as "Prodigy Classic" (PC). All resources were poured into PI while PC remained neglected. Frustrated, members began to leave the service. By mid 1999, PI subscribers numbered 800,000, but the million-plus members of the PC had dwindled significantly. It was announced that on 1 October 1999, PC would shut down forever. Prodigy estimated that only 150,000 members of PC migrated to PI. The others went elsewhere.


A Personal Note from Larry Orcutt

The Prodigy service came bundled with my computer software when I bought my machine and one restless day in 1994 I clicked on the icon for a one-month free trail. At that time the Archaeology Bulletin Board was a part of the Science and Environment Bulletin Board and the place was hopping. I was the new kid on the block of regulars, all friendly people with varying interests and education and all keen on things ancient. They welcomed me and I became a part of the little BB community. Many people came and few left. It was a time of fecundity and increase.

Prodigy BB

Friendships arose from our bulletin board meetings. I became e-mail partners with many of them (we correspond still). I have traveled to Egypt with some of them. I've visited with many of them when I have passed through their cities and many have visited with me when they passed through mine. Some of them are into Egypt and some are not; some have a great interest in archaeology, some have only a passing interest.

Really the only common factor was that we had happened across a peculiar feature of Prodigy called the "bulletin boards" where we could post messages, and replies, that all could read. We were limited to the most primitive of text characters and six twelve-line "pages" of copy. We had to watch our language because whatever we wrote was monitored. Once posted, we could not retract what had been written, and our creative efforts timed out and vanished after a prescribed period.

But sadly, the feature I loved the most became an anachronism. Prodigy Classic became but a memory. I tried the Internet Newsgroups as a substitute for the old BB, but I found profanity and "flames" too common. The sense of community is absent there, posts stray off-topic to the point of absurdity, "spam" is rampant, and I've "met" very few people I'd actually want to associate with in real life. Yahoo! XPArchaeology is an attempt to regain, to some degree, what was lost. The people are still great. Why not join them?