Snowballs in Cyberspace

With a modem and a soldering iron, you too can build an Internet site that is really cool and totally useless

In the early 1980s -- before the Internet became a cultural icon -- students at Carnegie Mellon University wired photosensors to the indicator lights on a Coke machine, programmed a computer to count the cans as they were dispensed, and connected the whole contraption to the network. By typing the command finger coke cs.cmu.edu, anybody with an Internet account at Carnegie Mellon -- or anywhere else -- could tell at a glance how many cans were left.

It was, as the engineers like to say, a clever hack -- one that touched the basic urge in computer users to control the...

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