Step Behind the Scenes of the Frantic, Madcap Birth of WIRED

Wide angle photograph of WIRED office in 1996 - Photograph: Marla Aufmuth

Step Behind the Scenes of the Frantic, Madcap Birth of WIRED
WIRED, April 16, 2013
Backchannel
By Ted Greenwald

“An oral history of WIRED 01.01.”

 

IMAGINE A TIME before smartphones. Before iBooks. Before Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even the mighty Google. A world without web browsers, when the Internet belonged to universities and going online meant logging onto an electronic bulletin board. Now imagine being able to smell it all coming—not the details but the impact of a networked world on culture, business, politics, daily life. These were the preconditions that spawned WIRED.

 

In 1988, Louis Rossetto, a 39-year-old adventurer, onetime novelist, and avid libertarian, sensed that the encoding of information in 1s and 0s was going to change everything. Living in Amsterdam at the time, he and Jane Metcalfe, his partner in business and life, had parlayed his job at an obscure language-translation service into a magazine, Electric Word. Produced on a Mac, it evoked a digital universe that was not about gadgetry but a force for global transformation.

 

Over the following year, the couple hammered out a business plan for a new magazine, tentatively called Millennium, that would take this revolution to the US mainstream. Technology, Rossetto predicted, would be the rock and roll of the ’90s, and the pair aimed to make Millennium its standard-bearer.

1. The Beginning of the Beginning

In 1991, Rossetto and Metcalfe were ready to execute their plan. For design support, they enlisted their friends John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr—a married couple living in New York City—and said, “Let’s go.”

 

Jane Metcalfe (president): We could see it so vividly. In Amsterdam, Philips was the Sony of its day. They were experimenting with all these data types. It was a time of great imagination about digital media. We’d been in it since the late ’80s, watching it, reporting on it, and it was accelerating.

 

Louis Rossetto (editor/publisher): So I called John and said we should get together and talk. Why don’t we meet up at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco?

 

John Plunkett (creative director): Up to that point, I was skeptical that we were ever going to make a magazine. When we went to Macworld, it went from theoretical to tangible.

 

LR: I remember meeting with John Plunkett, Randy Stickrod (founder of Computer Graphics World), and Jim Felici (Europe editor of desktop publishing journal Publish!) on a little mezzanine where the escalators go down into Moscone Center. We sat there talking about this magazine, how it needed to be made and we were the guys to make it. John would do the design. Randy had the financial contacts. Jim would be managing editor. I’d be publisher. Jane, who didn’t come with us to San Francisco, would be president.

 

JP: We left with a commitment. We would move to San Francisco to make this magazine.

 

But it still didn’t have a name.

 

JP: Millennium turned out to be the title of a magazine of film criticism. Louis ran into a disagreement with his Dutch publisher about who owned Electric Word.

 

LR: John wanted to call it Digit. Digit–dig it–get it?

 

JM: I just immediately threw up. Then I felt this huge responsibility to come up with a name. We came up with WIRED, and everything fell into place. It set the tone. It captured the punch—the edge—and the double meanings were rich.

 

Rossetto and Metcalfe wrapped up their affairs in anticipation of moving to the US. First stop: New York, to pick up Plunkett and Kuhr.

 

LR: When we got there, we found they had made other plans. They had bought a Jeep Cherokee, packed all their stuff, and instead of going to California they were on their way to Park City, Utah, where they had bought a house. It was a big surprise.

 

JP: I said I’d like to formalize our partnership. Louis and Jane were uncomfortable putting anything on paper.

 

LR: It was so nebulous what we were doing. Who knew what you could promise anyone before you had a deal?

 

JP: I said, if we can’t agree, Barbara and I can’t move to San Francisco.

 

Rossetto prevailed on his reluctant partners to stay long enough to make a mock-up of WIRED that he and Metcalfe could use to drum up investor interest.

 

Neil Selkirk (contributing photographer): They wound up producing the first prototype in my studio in New York City, ransacking drawers full of samples I’d done for magazines over the previous 20 years. They did sort of take over. Nothing was going to stop Louis.

 

LR: We worked day and night for three days. I’d write up some stuff, we’d look through books for images, take them to the copy shop at all times of the day and night. We collaged it together on 12 pages. We called it “Manifesto for a New Magazine.”

 

This proto-prototype’s cover featured a dour-looking John Perry Barlow, who had recently cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a photo cadged from The New York Times Magazine. The table of contents included made-up articles like “Still Dead Right: Neo-McLuhanites Face the 21st Century” and a report on the Inslaw scandal. It offered sections titled Electric Word, Idées Fortes, and Street Cred, as well as a fax of the month.

 

JP: Almost every story idea Louis put into the table of contents was eventually published in WIRED during our first year or two. The brand-new overnight success of 1993 had been percolating since the late 1980s.

 

NS: We went out for some insane Chinese meal. Then John and Barbara got into their car and drove away.

 

LR: Bye-bye, good luck. They took off.

Spiralbound mockup issue of WIRED
The proto-prototype.

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About the Author:

Ted Greenwald is a Contributor at WIRED.