Cleveland Freenet

Did you know that the very first Freenet was the Cleveland Freenet?

Turn PagesLong before the World Wide Web, the people of Cleveland, Ohio pioneered the computer networking idea. The Cleveland Freenet started out small ... and grew ... and grew ... and grew ..., until now, there are many Freenets, all around the world. But, the Freenet that started it all has shut down ... There is no more Cleveland Freenet! But, we'll get back to that later, so please keep reading.

So, just what is a "Freenet"? A Freenet is a community computer system. Here's a good, concise definition from maranGraphics. And now, here's the Cleveland Freenet story. We'll begin at the beginning ... and we'll end at the end!

ComputerIn 1984, Dr.Tom Grundner and a few of his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine created a free electronic community helpline. They gave it the catchy name of St. Silicon's Hospital. Any Clevelander with a computer and a modem could post a medical question for free and CWRU doctors would answer it. Read Los Angeles Freenet's history page for more information about St. Silicon's Hospital.

St. Silicon's Hospital was very successful. Dr. Grundner decided to expand the original medical forum idea into an "electronic city." By 1986, St. Silicon's Hospital had grown into the Cleveland Freenet (CFN). In addition to the original medical forum, CFN had more Q&A; sections with professional advice, various Special Interest Groups (SIG's), email (just local, within the system) and a lot more. The logon screen was the Cleveland skyline (representing the "electronic city"). Anybody with a computer and a modem could get a free account and access all services.

DiskNot too long after this, my family bought our first computer. It was the old IBM PC Jr., with one 5 1/4" floppy disk drive, a 300-baud modem and 64K RAM. We heard about this free community network and everybody in the family signed up for a free account. Remember, there was no Internet. It was pretty exciting to be able to connect online with all sorts of people!

Typing FastThe Cleveland Freenet was strictly a local net, with 10 modems, but we (the community users) thought of it as "the net." The relatively few users got to know each other online. We also had picnics, where people could meet each other, in person. The "electronic city" was more of a small town.

The most popular area was the Kiosk, where people could post contributions, ranging from small talk, to hotly debated controversial topics of the day. The Kiosk was in Public Square, following the "city" theme. I was a frequent contributor to the Kiosk. One day, somebody had the cute idea ... "If we are a city, why don't we have a mayor?" So, there was an election and I came within one vote of winning!

LaughingOther cities, first in Ohio, then other parts of the United States and finally, other countries picked up the Freenet idea. For $1, any city was allowed to use the CFN software. The second Freenet was Youngstown Freenet (YFN). The start of YFN was a big event and all CFN'ers were encouraged to log on to YFN and help it get started. Now, Youngstown Freenet has gone out of business, too!

WWWIn the meantime, Cleveland Freenet grew by leaps and bounds. Users multiplied and so did modem lines -- but they could never quite keep up with the demand. There was always a lag. Busy signals became more and more common. Yet, my family and I loved it! In 1996, the entire menu structure of the Cleveland Freenet looked like this - quite a selection!

After a while, the Cleveland Freenet hooked up with the Internet, in a "limited" way -- with outside email, Usenet posts (read-only), IRC and a few other services. People from other cities discovered the Cleveland Freenet and connected to it by telnet. The small town had become a congested metropolis!

Around this time, I became a co-sysop of the Toastmasters SIG. And, my husband Robert enjoyed CFN's IRC area, where he made several friends, such as Zee. The IRC crowd organized several live get-togethers, where we met some very nice people. (By this time, the CFN administration no longer had the picnics, that I mentioned early in this story.)

Small BombNobody ever had to pay for access, but CWRU became less and less willing to pay for the number of modems necessary to support the system or for the programming support, to keep it stable. System crashes and constant busy signals became growing problems. At the same time, outside of CFN, it was getting easier and cheaper to get onto the Internet. Compared to the web, the local features of CFN were becoming less exciting, now. The trend reversed ... Where the number of CFN users had been increasing over the years, it began to decrease.

Turn PagesAt about this time, Dr. Raymond Neff, then Vice President for Information Services at CWRU posted these remarks on the CFN. Read it, for the CWRU perspective on the story I've been telling.

Eventually, my family and I followed the new "trend," got a regular ISP and full Internet account. But, I still have a soft spot for the Cleveland Freenet, which gave me (and I'm sure, many other people) a start in computers.

During the summer of 1999, CWRU made a decision, to discontinue the Cleveland Freenet. The old CFN software was not Y2K compatible, they said. CWRU did not want to pay to upgrade it. Therefore, they said, CFN's last day of operation would be September 30, 1999. The CFN administration posted this on the welcome screen.

Many still-loyal users were distressed and even outraged! But, CWRU stuck to its decision. Immediately at midnight on September 30, 1999 and after that, attempts to log on to CFN returned these results. Unhappy former CFN'ers are now working on alternatives, namely ways to bring a community computing system back to Cleveland. I will bring you updates, as they occur, so stay tuned.

Want to learn more? Stop by the Organization for Community Networks and the Los Angeles Freenet.

If you want to know more or if you have any comments, please Mailbox email me at

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Last updated April 4, 2003