CB1 Cybercafe
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Armed with issue zero of .net magazine, and some business training from the Prince's Youth Business Trust, I developed a business plan, found some promising premises and applied to the banks for a £3,000 start-up loan.

 

To spare their blushes I won't name the bank which wrote back “We think the Internet will not gain traction and will remain a hobby business”.

Fortunately NatWest were more forward thinking and agreed to the loan but then it took four months of slow negotiation with landlords Gonville and Caius College to agree a five year lease on a shop they owned underneath some student lodgings. During those four months, Cyberia opened in London, the first cybercafe in the UK.

We opened in January 1995, the second internet cafe in the UK and one of the first ten in the world, as far as we could tell. 

 

Those early days were great fun – lots of news coverage, local TV and press, mentions in The Guardian and The Independent, and in effect for a brief period we had a monopoly on public internet access in Cambridge.

 

The 'killer app' was not the World Wide Web, as we had thought, but simple e-mail. Grandparents came in to communicate with grandchildren in New Zealand and visitors from Chile e-mailed their news to family back home.

 

A community of web-developers and online-games players developed, along with chess players and the 2nd best Go player in the world, or so he said. No-one could get near to beating him so it was probably true. 

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I have always loved this logo, which was designed by Damien Newman. The elegant simplicity of the icons was well ahead of its time.

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The first ever web page (1991) which CERN restored (2013) and is still live here

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Then suddenly in 1998 Google arrived and the internet opened up. It seems incredible to remember a world before Google, when Yahoo was the best search engine and Amazon was just a book shop. When we opened in 1995 one analysis is that there were about 10,000 websites in the whole world; a year later there were 100,000.

 

Another estimate is that in December 1996 there were about 16 million internet users in the world; five years later the number was 360 million, and after 10 years, in 2006, it was over 1 billion. Not bad growth for a hobby business!

Unlike books, old webpages leave essentially no trace once their host computer stops hosting them. There is one heroic attempt to archive it all, the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, or at least to archive all the bits worth keeping. But that's the first problem with the web in a nutshell – who is to decide what is worth keeping, and what criteria could possibly be used?

 

The second problem is that of the vast number of websites which currently exist (somewhere between 1 and 2 billion) only a very small percentage are active (perhaps 200 million) – although that itself is also a huge number. 

Our own first webpages were not pretty.

The final one is still live but hasn't been updated for many years.

Sadly the original CB1 cybercafe closed in 2016.

The old Twitter feed can be found here and some nice reviews here and here.

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Cambridge Evening News January 1995 pre-opening. Why on earth am I pouring a cup of tea?

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My involvement with CB1 ended around 2003 but while the cafe kept the same name, the same books on the walls and the same historic old computers on the, by now very dusty, top shelves, it developed new identities, most memorably as an Art Cafe with an excellent website which can still be visited here and seen below and even seen on a Youtube video.

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UPDATES

Cambridge Evening News (2017). Cambridgeshire-based author Francis Spufford has won the 2016 Costa First Novel Award for Golden Hill. Set in 18th-century New York it was written over three years in a Cambridge café. “I wrote in the old cyber café CB1 on Mill Road. It’s Tom’s Cakes now which I’m sure is lovely, but I’m loyal to what it was. I used to sit in there three days a week drinking Americanos.”