First Live Digital Image on CompuServe

Digital photograph of ASMP Central Florida chapter February, 1993. David Heller (seated, center) provided IT supervision.
©John Siebenthaler

CompuServe Social Platform’s First Live Digital Image Upload

The black and white digital photograph above is one of the first real time, commercial images to be viewed live on CompuServe’s dialup modem linked network of servers.

Today we snap anecdotal photos by the billions, using miniaturized smart phone cameras to simultaneously update our visual interests to any number of social sites. It wasn’t always this painless. This is what it looked like in the beginning.

ASMP Central Florida Chapter Newsletter March-April 1993 February, 1993, and commercial digital photography is in the very early stages of development. Essential JPEG (.jpg) algorithms now taken for granted were still being finalized. TIFF was the standard (bloated and inefficient) format for rasterized image content. <download chapter newsletter (left) PDF

At the same time, while what we now know as the web and its browser enabled rich content was still being imagined, commercial sites of the early years (prohibited then from accessing the WWW) ran over household telephone lines behind an impenetrable wall of individual cantons.

I belonged to CompuServe, the first and then largest of a half-dozen or so commercial intranet social services (AOL, Prodigy, GEnie, each serving their own customer base and incapable of talking to each other) popular at the time. Members jumped online with dialup modems that connected to local access nodes peppered throughout the continent. Common practice when traveling was to tote along a phone jack hack kit and a list of hit-or-miss toll-free numbers.

CompuServe Was Professional Photography’s First National Online Site

As an administrator of Compuserve’s Special Interest Group (SIG) Photography forum, I was able to carve out a private niche for the American Society of Magazine Photographers, becoming the first online presence for a national professional photographer’s organization. (I also formed and chaired ASMP’s first technology committee, authoring the first report to address the issue of online digital access and what that might mean to photographers’ usage rights.)


A regional meeting in Orlando of Florida’s ASMP chapters was the opportunity to photograph members with Kodak’s beta DCS 200mi Digital Camera System. I’d made the loaner list for Kodak’s $20,000, black and white only, heavily modified motor drive Nikon mated to a small, slow hard drive powered by 16 rapidly drained AAs. (So much for blaming Kodak’s eventual bankruptcy on a lack of digital imaging knowledge – this was the first practical digital image capture commercially developed.)

There was no in-camera preview; the image first had to be transferred (over SCSI cable connection) to a Mac IIsi for viewing in Photoshop and downsampling before being uploaded to Compuserve’s mainframe in Columbus, Ohio, a process which took nearly half an hour over a staggeringly slow 2,400-bps modem.

To complete the project, Compuserve’s Photography forum owner in Sacramento had to merge the image into the forum library, and within 15 minutes it was available for viewing and download by ASMP members worldwide. As part of the experiment, ASMP members in three separate chapters throughout the country were also able to conduct live online chats within the forum. The photograph above is one of the first near real time, commercial digital images ever viewed electronically.