25 Years Later, First Registered Domain Name Changes Hands

Did you know the first .com domain name that was ever registered was Symbolics.com, on the 15th of March 1985 by the now defunct Massachusetts-based computer manufacturer Symbolics?

While the first that was created in January of that same year was Nordu.net (used to serve as the identifier of the first root server, nic.nordu.net), symbolics.com was the first domain name to actually be registered through the appropriate DNS process a few months later. This was of course long before there was a WWW, but you already had ‘the Internet’. In fact, the first TCP/IP-based wide-area network had already been operational for two years when nordu.net was created, right around the time the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned the construction of the legendary NSFNET, a university 56 kilobit/second network backbone. Only six companies thought it’d be a good idea to reserve the domain name on the root servers in 1985 (the others were bbn.com, think.com, mcc.com, dec.com and northrop.com). But Symbolics was first to make the move.

Remarkably, Symbolics.com hasn’t changed ownership once during the nearly 25 years that followed its initial registration. Marking an end to that era, domain name investment company XF.com Investments has just purchased the domain name for an undisclosed sum.

Which calls for a bit of history about the original owner:

Symbolics, Inc – a spinoff from the MIT AI Lab – was a computer manufacturer headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts and later in Concord, Massachusetts, that designed and manufactured a line of Lisp machines, single-user computers optimized to run the Lisp programming language. The machines became the first commercially available “general-purpose computers” or “workstations” way before those terms were coined.

The company also offered one of the premier software development environments of the 1980s and 1990s, now sold commercially as Open Genera for Tru64 UNIX on the HP Alpha.

In the late eighties, the company started its slow descent towards bankruptcy and oblivion, neatly chronicled in this blog post by former Symbolics employee Dan Weinreb:

The world changed out from under us very quickly. The new “workstation” category of computer appeared: the Suns and Apollos and so on. New technology for implementing Lisp was invented that allowed good Lisp implementations to run on conventional hardware; not quite as good as ours, but good enough for most purposes. So the real value-added of our special Lisp architecture was suddenly diminished. A large body of useful Unix software came to exist and was portable amongst the Unix workstations: no longer did each vendor have to develop a whole software suite. And the workstation vendors got to piggyback on the ever-faster, ever-cheaper CPU’s being made by Intel and Motorola and IBM, with whom it was hard for Symbolics to keep up. We at Symbolics were slow to acknowledge this. We believed our own “dogma” even as it became less true. It was embedded in our corporate culture. If you disputed it, your co-workers felt that you “just didn’t get it” and weren’t a member of the clan, so to speak. This stifled objective analysis. (This is a very easy problem to fall into — don’t let it happen to you!)

Meanwhile, back at Symbolics, there were huge internal management conflicts, leading to the resignation of much of top management, who were replaced by the board of directors with new CEO’s who did not do a good job, and did not have the vision to see what was happening. Symbolics signed long-term leases on big new offices and a new factory, anticipating growth that did not come, and were unable to sublease the properties due to office-space gluts, which drained a great deal of money. There were rounds of layoffs. More and more of us realized what was going on, and that Symbolics was not reacting. Having created an object-oriented database system for Lisp called Statice, I left in 1988 with several co-workers to form Object Design, Inc., to make an object-oriented database system for the brand-new mainstream object-oriented language, C++.

Symbolics still exists as a shell of its former self. But now the very first .com domain name ever registered becomes property of a small domain name investment holding that is so shy about its identity that it doesn’t publish the names of the people involved with the company, let alone a company address, on its website. There’s absolutely no indication of what the future has in store for the historical domain name, apart from the fact XF.com intends to celebrate its 25th birthday next year.

To quote Samwise Gamgee in Lord Of The Rings: “I don’t know why, but it makes me sad.”