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What Was The First Thing Ever Bought On The Internet? Weed, Of Course

1970s | April 20, 2020

(Computer History Museum)

The Internet has been a boon for commerce, but back when it was more tape and spinning reel-to-reel machines than a mysterious set of digital tubes, online shopping was a thing of the future. So what was the first purchase made online? Moon Shoes? Mariah Carey tapes? Nope. When some enterprising young people from Stanford made the first online sale in history, it was weed. This initial transaction paved the way for decades of illicit online business.

It's important to keep in mind that this first sale wasn't the score to end all scores, nor was it posted publicly on an early version of eBay. It was just a little bag of weed sold through an Arpanet account in Stanford’s artificial intelligence lab in 1972. It's not clear who was in on the sale aside from the students, but despite the underhanded nature of the deal, anyone with knowledge of the sale who wasn't a square must have been excited about the implications of this early use of the Internet.

(Computer History Museum)

More Craigslist Than Amazon

This initial online sale wasn't carried out in the same way that you buy something on Amazon. It was more similar to sales arranged on sites like Craigslist, which does have a very "early days of the Internet" vibe. It didn't feature an exchange of funds, only a deal that was pieced together online and carried out in person. It took a few more years before buyers could transmit their credit card information through the web with the appropriate encryption.

(YouTube)

The Early Days Of Online Sales

Thanks to this one sale of a small amount of marijuana, online entrepreneurs realized they could use the Internet to sell whatever they wanted. In 1974, Donald Sherman ordered a pizza with a "talking computer," and 10 years later, a 72-year-old British woman named Jane Snowball used a Videotex connected to her television to place an order for groceries. (Sadly, she did not use it to become a fictional detective.) Like the Stanford weed purchase of the 1970s, this order was just that: an order. Snowball paid for the food in person.

(Sony)

The First Real Purchase Was A Sting CD

The first online sale that we'd recognize as such today, complete with credit card information and the United States Postal Service, wasn't until 1994. On August 11 that year, Dan Kohn sold a copy of the Sting album Ten Summoner's Tales to a man in Philadelphia for $12.48 plus shipping, paid via encrypted credit card. Kohn later bragged, "Even if the N.S.A. was listening in, they couldn't get his credit card number."

(MEL)

The Silk Road To The Future

So much has changed since that first online marijuana sale in 1972. In fact, we now have entire websites devoted to the sale of drugs and other illicit goods. The one thing that's stayed the same is the desire of the people to make a purchase from the comfort of their own homes rather than put on pants and brave the public market, whether it be for mind-altering substances or British post-punk icons.

Tags: business | drugs | internet

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.