The man who brought the Internet to South Africa

When it comes to the pioneers who helped drive South Africa’s Internet adoption, few names carry as much weight in the industry as Mike Lawrie.

As director of computing services at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, Lawrie was a key part of the team that established South Africa’s first international Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) connection in 1991.

The road to this milestone was not straightforward and highly unconventional — with severe budgetary limits and plenty of “jerry-rigging” of computing and electronic equipment.

In a 2011 interview, Lawrie said the long-devised setup seemed “ridiculous” considering they had used a mainframe computer — a scientific number cruncher — as a central point to gather all South African universities’ mail.

They then manipulated and moved the mail into a personal computer in such a way that the computer thought someone had typed it in.

Lawrie’s career in technology started with fixing Hollerith machines, electromechanical data-processing tabulators considered to be important precursors to the electronic computer.

His first major career development in computing was being appointed site engineer at Rhodes in Makhanda, called Grahamstown at the time, from 1965 to 1969.

His ventures in building long-distance electronic communication links truly kicked off upon his return to the university in 1971, after two years living in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Lawrie started pushing the university to move away from physical punch cards for data storage in Hollerith-like machines.

Once the university acquired a Control Data Cyber mainframe computer, he set up an interactive computing system using RS232 communication links and PABX wiring to connect it to a visual display unit.

Mike Lawrie (left) and Moosa Sha, operations supervisor, helping to offload the Control Data Cyber mainframe computer at Rhodes in 1981. Credit: Rhodes University.

Over the next few years, Lawrie would devise and collaborate on several innovations that paved the way for early email between universities in South Africa:

  • Convinced Telkom to install local copper leads into his house in Grahamstown from the town’s telephone exchange, connecting him with the university.
  • Developed an email system for Rhodes using the Control Data Corporation Cyber 825 machine, an unusual approach as most commercial networks used IBM mainframes.
  • Modified a VAX “mini” computer from the Rhodes Physics Department to behave like an IBM mainframe that could connect to the Cyber mainframe’s network and enable email and file transfers.
  • Together with Potchefstroom University computing director Philip Welman, devised a method to get the Cyber machine to communicate with Potch’s IBM mainframe, enabling the first emails between the universities.

Lawrie’s subsequent requests to link up Rhodes with the main academic research network run by SRI International in Silicon Valley were politely declined, but the company referred him to five other networks.

Ultimately, it was FidoNet, developed by Tom Jennings, that would be used for Rhodes’s first emails to the US.

This mail system pushed messages to different bulletin boards, which were popular at the time.

“Each city would have a central node, and late at night, it would batch all the mails together, zip them up and send them to another central node that would unpack them, keep what was destined for it and forward the rest,” Lawrie explained.

Lawrie and his team discovered there was an existing South African FidoNet community and persuaded the network that Rhodes could act as an intermediary for forwarding emails from Johannesburg, Pretoria, and other locations to the US.

In 1988, they set up the first FidoNet email link between Rhodes and the home of Randy Bush in Oregon in the United States.

Two other important Internet pioneers in South Africa — Alan Barrett at the University of Natal and Chris Pinkham at the University of Cape Town — took notice.

The pair also sought to connect their universities’ email systems with Rhodes’ network.

Barrett and Pinkham converted the protocols of their different systems to work with FidoNet using a process Lawrie dubbed “munging.”

Chris Pinkham would go on to lead a time in Cape Town that developed Amazon’s Elastic Compute, the product that propelled Amazon Web Services to become the world’s biggest cloud services provider.

In 1991, Lawrie learnt about TCP/IP protocols and secured a sign-on to use what would become the backbone of the Internet at the University of Delaware.

Rhodes was able to use the Post Office’s X.25 system to log into Delaware’s system and access the Internet.

Pinkham and Barrett wanted to link their universities into the system and paid R400 for a software package that would make the VAX computer behave like a router.

The first attempts failed until Barrett came up with the idea to use open-source software called PC Route, which worked well and equipped the network with support for mail protocols like SMTP.

The final ingredient was to persuade Vic Shaw and Uninet to fund the line, as the surge in email traffic had pushed the university FidoNet’s operating cost into the region of around R90,000 per month.

That was because the emails travelled through a long route to Delaware, then on to Bush in Oregon, a Unix system, and then over the FidoNet.

Shaw secured a leased line from the Post Office between Rhodes and Bush’s house in Oregon, slashing the cost down to R30,000 per month.

On 12 November 1991, the first Internet protocol packets began transmitting on the leased circuit from South Africa to Bush’s house, marking the beginning of outgoing Internet traffic in South Africa.

Lawrie said although he had no idea what taking drugs felt like, he and the rest of the Internet mavericks were “on a high” for months.

“It wasn’t a formal breakthrough, we weren’t the first or anything, but to have it here….felt great,” Lawrie said.

Aside from Lawrie, Bush, Pinkham, and Barret, Francois Jacot Guillarmod, Dave Wilson, and Pat Terry were the key roleplayers in this achievement.

Mike Lawrie. Credit: Chris Marais

Lawrie has been humble about his achievements and says that he had luck on his side.

His fiddling with technology continued beyond retirement.

In 2016, Lawrie revealed he had built an internal ADSL network at his retirement village in Pretoria to provide other residents with 20Mbps uncapped Internet for between R19 and R40 per month.

The network went live on 1 April 2009 after Lawrie put forward a proposal to the village’s board.

In addition to fixed connectivity to each resident, the network supported free Wi-Fi access in communal areas and Internet café with free Internet access.

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The man who brought the Internet to South Africa