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History of the Los Angeles Free-Net
In 1984, the Department of Family Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio had house staff officers at five clinical units around the city. In order for these physicians to communicate with each other without playing telephone tag, an old Apple II microcomputer was connected to a phone line, and a computerized bulletin board was set up by Tom Grundner, Ed.D. The system had both email capability and a general announcement area. Any faculty or staff member with access to a microcomputer and a modem could use the system to receive and send messages 24 hours a day. Not long after the system was inaugurated, a hacker in Cleveland found the system and, because doctors reviewed the announcements several times a day, decided to leave a medical question on the system. One of the physicians posted an answer to the question. The availability of anonymously asked, professionally answered, free medical information, provided in a timely fashion, proved immensely popular in the Cleveland area. Dr. Grundner rewrote the software to provide a friendly interface to the general public, recruited physicians to answer the incoming questions and nicknamed the system "St. Silicon's Hospital and Information Dispensary." He and a colleague, Dr. Robert Garrett, described the evolving system in a New England Journal of Medicine article entitled: Interactive Medical Telecomputing: An alternative approach to community health education. (New England Journal of Medicine 1986;314:982-5). At the conclusion of the article, the authors offered to distribute the software created to run this system to qualified parties on a collaborative basis. Avrum Bluming, M.D., a Los Angeles cancer specialist, recognizing the life-saving value of medical information provided when it was needed, contacted Dr. Grundner in 1986, and offered to help set up a collaborative system in Los Angeles. He was informed that the system was much more than a medical information resource, that it had, in fact, grown into an electronic city renamed the Cleveland Free-Net, and had a post office, a library, a school house, a government center, and an administration center in addition to St. Silicon's Hospital. Since the system could not be distributed in modules, Dr. Bluming was informed that a system in Los Angeles would have to have the full range of services provided by the Cleveland Free-Net. It took nine years and a core of dedicated, multitalented people to turn the concept of a Los Angeles Free-Net into a real world system. Linda Delzeit, an Orange County educator, Richard Bisbey, a computer scientist, Phil Mittelman, a physicist and retired entrepreneur, and Mel Roseman, a retired teacher helped lead the hundreds of volunteers whose efforts have generated a thriving Los Angeles Free-Net which was finally born on May 10, 1994. Our home system housed at the Tarzana Regional Medical Center has grown from a text based service on a Sun Sparc10 with 16 dial up phone lines and a single 56KB link to the Internet into a WWW site with extensive community resources, many modular servers, hundreds of dial up phone lines with T1 links to the Internet and toll-free access throughout the state of California. The lessons learned from this experiment in community-based telecommunications were summarized in an article by Avrum Bluming, M.D. and Phillip Mittelman, Ph.D. in an article entitled: Los Angeles Free-Net: an experiment in interactive telecommunication between lay members of the Los Angeles community and health care experts. (Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 1996;84:217-22).