Biographie William von Meister
Information professionals--accustomed to searching premium content databases such as Dialog, Factiva, and
LexisNexis--know that these services have a long history, stretching back 3 decades. They're well aware that
online information predates the Internet, but they tend to forget about the parallel universe of electronic
information sources geared toward the personal computer user, something we used to call "consumer online."
In the January/February 2007 issue of ONLINE ("The Internet, ARPAnet, and Consumer Online"), I profiled
Compuserve, one of the earliest online systems. It offered email, online chat, forums, and data downloads.
At one point, it even had a low-priced subset of Dialog databases, available only outside of normal working hours.
Compuserve (aka Compu-Serve and Compu-Serv) wasn't the only consumer online pioneer, however.
So, to continue my story, think back several decades.
As Ohio microcomputer owners tested Compu-Serve's MicroNET in the late 1970s, a Virginia M.B.A. named
William F. von Meister was pondering his next business move. The 36-year-old had recently been
ousted from his position as CEO of a high-tech startup that he had founded less than 2 years earlier.
This was not a new experience for von Meister, who was surprisingly inept for an entrepreneur.
His business practices were questionable (and sometimes questioned in court). He started nine companies in
10 years; the longest he stayed with any of them was 2 years, and he was forced out of most of them.
But he had some good ideas, one of which became Western Union's Mailgram service. And he was good at finding
backers for those ideas. So, despite his business ineptitude, von Meister made money--enough to support
eight children, a rambling mansion in suburban Virginia, and his hobbies. Coming from a wealthy family
tinged with royalty, he may have felt entitled to living well.
After high school, he enrolled in Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service but spent most of his
time buying and racing exotic sports cars. Five years of alternating school and racing produced no profit
but did produce an ultimatum from his father. So at the age of 25, von Meister returned to school full
time--this time at American University where he earned a B.A. and an M.B.A. in 18 months.
BIONETICS AND WESTERN UNION
Marketing himself as a "consultant" (he had a couple thousand business cards printed and began handing them
out), von Meister moved rapidly through a series of contract positions where he collected knowledge and
ideas that he would later piece together into interesting business ventures. After computerizing the
operations of a diversified Virginia company called The Bionetics Corp., he went to Western Union where he
put his knowledge from Bionetics to work on a computerized billing system.
Western Union was scrapping all of its telegraph equipment (electronics equipment that had a huge potential
salvage value). When no one bid on the equipment, von Meister put in a bid of $750 then sold the lot for $250,000.
This was only the beginning of what he would take with him from Western Union. Observing Telex systems
inspired him to design a system for speeding up business mail. Western Union wasn't interested, but
von Meister found a backer and implemented his idea as Telepost. The backer forced him out of the
company after a dispute, but Telepost went on to become Western Union's Mailgram service. Von Meister
reportedly received a $1.2-million buyout.
Fresh from this venture, von Meister cast about for a new idea and found it with the help of Bernard Ryder,
an engineer he'd known at Western Union. Ryder had a formula for analyzing and controlling the routing of
bulk telephone communications so that the optimum, least-expensive paths were always used. The two developed
a computerized system to implement the idea. After applying for a patent, von Meister formed a company
called TDX Systems, Inc. to capitalize on it. (The initials TDX stood for nothing; it was a combination
that von Meister thought sounded good.)
He went looking for backing and found it in the form of a British company, Cable & Wireless, which
happened to be seeking an entree into American business at the time. Cable & Wireless signed on in 1975.
Combining existing technology in new ways was fast becoming von Meister's standard mode of operation. While
getting paid $70,000 per year to run TDX, von Meister began work on another idea that combined computers and
communications. It was a means of "piggybacking" digital data on an FM radio broadcast using a sideband.
The system could transmit any kind of data to homes or offices, and von Meister envisioned it as the
foundation of a service that would send weather, stock market, and other information directly to
business and home subscribers. He patented the idea and started a business called Digital Broadcast Corp.
with TDX's money.
At the same time, he had TDX starting up a business called Datapost. Datapost marketed a service very similar
to Mailgram, differing in that it used faxes instead of Telex to transmit correspondence before mailing it.
Juggling all of these ideas and spending company money haphazardly got von Meister into trouble. TDX showed
a $4.5-million loss for 1977, and von Meister was shown the door by Cable & Wireless.
He received $700,000 on his way out.
So von Meister found himself at loose ends at the beginning of 1978. Undaunted, he cast about for a new
business idea. He found it, naturally enough, in the telecommunications field.
While working with Cable & Wireless, he had seen experiments with Videotex, an information system that would
use cable television lines to transmit textual data to subscribers' television sets. The most exciting element
was the potential for interactivity. Cable subscribers could shop illustrated online catalogs, provide feedback
on services, and even communicate with short text messages--all through special cable boxes.
Promising though it was, Videotex was awkward and ugly. The cable box didn't have a full keyboard, and onscreen
text and graphics were huge and blocky. Still, von Meister was fascinated by the concept of home information
services and saw them as the wave of the future.
He also recognized the problems inherent in trying to build an information service based on cable television.
Only about 20 percent of homes in America had cable, and the majority of cable networks were one-way systems;
they could only send information to subscribers. Creating a two-way cable network would require building an
entirely new cable system, a project so big that no one would consider it. But a two-way communications
network already existed, and it was connected to just about every home on the continent: the telephone system.
Combining the concept with his recent experience with microcomputers and telephone systems, von Meister
decided to create a nationwide information service that linked home computers to a central computer through
telephone lines. It would have none of the disadvantages of cable and all of its advantages (bandwidth excepted).
The network would provide electronic mail, which he felt was vital because of its intensely interactive character,
along with airline and TV schedules, news, weather, and anything else von Meister might dream up.
He spent most of 1978 organizing the business under the aegis of Telecomputing Corp. of America (TCA).
Funding it with his own money, he set up offices in a building in McLean, Va., near his Vienna home.
Email was to be the service's hub, so he made it a priority. It didn't take long to...
The Stoy of a Pathological Entrepeneur
The world might have easily missed the fact that William von Meister invented AOL had Steve Case not
shown up for his memorial service on May 20, 1995. Family and friends were amused that day with
eulogies describing von Meister’s voracious consumption of life, taking on fast cars, fine red wine, and
only the best of the single malts. One of the eulogies described a dark side of von Meister’s drinking
and his always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride luck in business. In one 10-year span, von Meister was involved
in 9 startups and never stayed with one of them more than 2 years. One of von Meister’s close business
associates said, "He was the most human of human beings I ever knew, and his flaws were never disguised."
Even the published obituaries written that week had no mention of von Meister’s involvement in AOL.
In fact, until that point, von Meister’s larger-than-life caricature might have seemed like an abject
failure. He died broke and left his family in debt with nothing to show for all his business startups except
a single plaque at the famous Palm restaurant in Washington, DC, and that was only because he probably
bought more vintage scotch there than anyone else. When Steve Case took his turn at the memorial lectern,
he opened with, "Without Bill von Meister, there would have been no America Online."
Most of the people in attendance, including his family, had no idea of this man’s importance on the
history of America industry. And that was less than the half of it.
John M. Willis Blog
William F. von Meister, 53, a pioneer of the online services industry, died May 18 in Great Falls, Va.
He was known as a consummate entrepreneur and promoter whose management capabilities rarely matched his vision.
Von Meister's first success was TDX Systems Inc., acquired in the 1970s by Cable & Wireless as its entree
into U.S. markets. Later, with Bob Ryan and Jack Taub, he started Digital Broadcasting Corp., an FM
transmission technology company. In 1979, DBC launched The Source, the first popular online services company.
In July 1979, when von Meister announced The Source at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Isaac Asimov, who was
sharing the platform, proclaimed, "This is the beginning of the information age," recalls former Source
executive Bettie Steiger, now a Xerox marketing executive at the Palo Alto Research Center.
But following several changes of ownership and near-death experiences, The Source was acquired by CompuServe.
And by the mid-1980s von Meister had become a founder of of yet another company, Quantum Communications,
which after undergoing a reorganization emerged as America Online.
"Bill was good with the press and could raise money from the dead," said a former backer. "And he was
magnificent in the courts," where von Meister sometimes negotiated lucrative exit strategies.
A tennis player, race car driver and sailor, von Meister was, the former backer said, "a magnificent rogue."