1999 eclipse

5 minutes estimated reading time

The 1999 eclipse, also called millennium eclipse as it would be the last total solar eclipse of the 2oth century popped up recently on the BBC.

Solar eclipse

For me it was a big online event. Eclipses don’t happen often. The last one in the UK had been some 72 years earlier. I was working in an agency in Covent Garden. It was the middle of the dot com boom. I had a mix of telecoms clients, the usual dot com projects and Palm PDAs as my clients.

I had managed to hand off most techie client; custom chipmaker LSI Logic on to other colleagues.

Delivering results wasn’t a problem for LSI Logic at the time. They were on the cutting edge of games console technology, computer storage and embedded electronics. Digital television was about to take off and LSI Logic had a chipset back then that even supported 8K transmissions. The corresponding displays to support 8K wouldn’t be along for another decade and a half. Its CoreWare library of chip functions based on a MIPS processor was the ARM of its day. But LSI Logic could fabricate the chips as well. The CEO was old school Silicon Valley, having been at Motorola Semiconductor and Fairchild Semiconductor.

The problem was the European operation communications team were very process-orientated, rather than outcome-orientated.

With a few of my clients (RSL COM and Bell Atlantic’s international wireless business); I was allowed to run with remarkable leeway. I got on well with my clients. For the most part, I managed to avoid screwing things up.

Life was hectic, I was constantly tired from a lack of sleep. But overall it was good. I had gained a promotion and was saving for the deposit on my first house. I was sat on the end of a (massive for the time 1Mbit/sec T1 internet connection). Ok, I shared it with other colleagues. But it mean’t pretty reasonable for the time internet connectivity. The IT department allowed me to use FTP overnight and during the weekends to download vintage house mixes. At the time the legendary deephousepage.com site was run by a technician on a university web server, allowing downloads of mixes encoded using Real Media audio format. This was just before MP3 went mainstream.

The 1999 eclipse came along and was to be the first ‘internet’ event that I would experience.

The BBC along with Sky News and ITV devoted their entire morning’s broadcasting to it. As an agency; we didn’t have a TV that I could remember. There was a problem with getting access to an aerial socket given we were on the ground floor of a tower block. Also the landlord wasn’t accommodating as they wanted a higher paying tenant in the office.

Dot com businesses were driving up office rents in a similar way to Chinese hot money driving up central London residential property prices a decade later.

The day of the 1999 eclipse, London was overcast. Just before lunch, colleagues dipped out to watch whatever they could see. I jumped on my work computer and fired up the BBC website to watch the eclipse experience live. It didn’t work that well; I presume every design agency with an ISDN line had a similar idea that morning.

I typed in the website address for Sky News and went there instead. It was slightly better. I then used the backwards and forwards buttons to switch between the BBC and Sky News. (It would be another few years before mainstream browsers like Mozilla and Opera had tabs). Both pages carried what was supposed to be live video of the 1999 eclipse.

Just six months previously, our agency had done Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show as a web stream for the first time. Back in 1999, this was a major technical feat and for the most part it turned out alright. The picture was so small you couldn’t really make it out. I couldn’t tell you if it was Tyra Banks on the cat walk. But that didn’t matter, it captured the imagination. It was done as much for the buzz it would create, as for how many people would view it.

I had high hopes for the eclipse. It was happening before the US came online. Back in 1999, as soon as the US woke up, our office internet speed would grind to a halt.

The reality of the 1999 eclipse was more prosiac. The video was displayed on screen about the size of a large rectangular postage stamp. Like a special edition one that you might get for Christmas. The image changed in a very jerky manner, like a bad slide show rather than full motion. And there was no sound.

But at least I got to see a full eclipse, which was more than my colleagues could say. The overcast day and only a partial eclipse over London wasn’t that thrilling. It would be at least another ten years before the internet was ready for mass live events.

Two years later, the dot com bubble had turned into a bust. I was working at another agency, that thankfully had TVs and I remember leaning against a filing cabinet watching a plane hit the world trade centre in New York. It didn’t occur to me to go online. I knew that the web wouldn’t work that well.

Four years after that, I was working at Yahoo! Europe, when our web pages ground to a halt as the UK scrambled to get the latest news on the July 7th – London bombings. This was the first social media event as the engineers saw a flood of pictures into flickr. This gave the team a 15 minute head start to strip the Yahoo! UK home page of adverts and scripts. Instead they rebuilt the home page manually (in Dreamweaver) and republished updates as they happened through the day and into the evening.

Now, most events would be produced and streamed via a smartphone on to a service like Twitch, YouTube or Instagram with video good enough for broadcast news.