Retro Tech: Exploring the lost world of Prodigy

We take a time-travel tour of an early and colorful online service that presaged the web.

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Remember when...

From 1988 to 1996, IBM and Sears jointly operated a graphically rich online service called Prodigy, which allowed users from all over the United States to dial in and view weather, stocks, news, and more while also exchanging emails and bulletin board posts with other users.

When the service shut down in 1999 (after a few ownership changes), Prodigy took its rich history of graphical screens with it. All seemed lost until a programmer named Jim Carpenter figured out a way to extract “fossilized” data from Prodigy client cache files (called STAGE.DAT). I wrote about his quest for The Atlantic back in 2014.

In response to the article, Jim and I received several STAGE.DAT files (from which we extracted various screens) along with screenshots of advertisements and artwork created for the service back in the day (if you’d like to help, see this page). In the slides ahead, I’ll take you on a brief virtual tour of the service using many screens that have never been seen before on the Internet. It’s a compelling (albeit incomplete) view of what using Prodigy was like in the early 1990s.

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Logging on

Whenever users launched their Prodigy client software, they were presented with a distinctive login screen that looked similar to this one. After typing in the ID and Password, the client would dial up a previously configured telephone number and connect to the service. If the login credentials checked out, users were online and ready to go.

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After logging in, Prodigy would display the Highlights page, which was considered the front page of the service. It contained national news headlines, service announcements, and advertisements that everyone on the service would see first thing. If you had new mail, you would be prompted with a blinking icon in the corner of the screen. (Unlike the other shots in this slideshow, this is an actual photograph of a computer monitor taken by early Prodigy artist Anthony Whetzel.)

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Prodigy offered several games to its subscribers over the years, and the most popular of all was probably MadMaze, a screen-based adventure game where players attempted to navigate a maze from a first-person perspective. Many years later, a fan created a web-based remake of the game that you can still play today (if you have a compatible IE browser).

You’ll also notice an ad across the bottom of the screen. Many pages on Prodigy contained these banners that, if clicked, would take the user to another screen detailing an offer or more information on a product. Advertising was designed into Prodigy from the beginning.

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Coca Cola music promo

If a user clicked on or selected the “Look” button on a banner ad, they would be taken to a page like this one, which was created by commercial artist Anthony Whetzel for a 1992 Coca-Cola promo. It detailed a CD giveaway that tied into the Summer Olympics. Information about the promo continued on the next page, which users would get to by clicking on the “Next” button on the toolbar across the bottom of the screen.

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Airline tickets

Among the services Prodigy provided was the ability to purchase airline tickets, which was a remarkable convenience at the time. This screen shows one such outlet on Prodigy called Eaasy/QuickTix. Prior to online services like Prodigy, you needed to acquire tickets through a travel agency by physically visiting an office or actually talking to a human over the telephone. Ghastly, right?

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Sharp Wizard advertisement

Here’s another advertisement designed by Whetzel—this time for the Sharp Wizard pocket organizer. Prodigy’s system of vector graphics produced bright, bold illustrations that, while lacking in detail, were quick to download and smoothly scalable to any resolution.

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Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia

One of the most popular features on Prodigy—especially among school-age kids—was access to an online encyclopedia. Imagine: Instead of having to drive to a library and look in a book, you could sit in your own home, type in a phrase, and instantly receive information about the topic on your computer. As quaint as it seems now, it was a mind-blowing capability at the time. (It made writing my history reports so much easier.)

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Baby-Sitters Club

This is one of the most interesting screens Jim Carpenter extracted from a STAGE.DAT file we received from an ex-Prodigy user. I’m slightly mystified by its exact meaning, but it appears to be a date book and reminder service on Prodigy that was tied into the popular Baby-Sitters Club series of youth novels. It's like a primitive Apple Siri, but rendered over dial-up. Uncovering forgotten capabilities like this is one of the main reasons Carpenter and I want to preserve information about Prodigy.

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IBM PS/2 Ad, Part 1

Here we see another vector advertising masterpiece created by Whetzel for Prodigy back in the early 1990s. This was part of a multi-page animated campaign for IBM PS/2 computers. Since IBM co-owned the service, the company often bundled the Prodigy client software and co-promoted the service with its PCs.

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IBM PS/2 Ad, Part 2

After a few screens illustrating how fast IBM PS/2 computers were (including the previous slide), the user would end up on this page of the IBM advertisement, welcoming them to the Nineties—as in both the decade and the PS/2 model numbers. Such an intimate, revealing slice of vintage digital culture would otherwise be lost if people like Whetzel had not taken the time to archive it. It makes you wonder about the tens of thousands of Prodigy pages that haven’t been saved or recovered—priceless digital artifacts and artworks that have been potentially been lost to the sands of time.

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Logging off

Here’s another rare extracted page from a STAGE.DAT file, and it’s an important one: the logoff screen—what users would see when leaving the service. It mentions promos for Sesame Street (imagine what that must have looked like), the aforementioned Baby-Sitters Club, and 9600bps service “for NO extra monthly fee!” Even cooler is the ad for 1993 minivans at the bottom of the page.

Yes, Prodigy was a unique capsule of digital artistry that, aside from this handful of screens, some black-and-white photos in books, and roughly a hundred other screens we have recovered, has completely been wiped from history up to this point. If you feel you can help with this recovery in any way (especially if you have an old Prodigy client installation sitting around), please send me an email.

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