What Was the First Thing Sold on the Internet?

The answer depends on how the question is approached

online shopping
Image Source/Corbis

Today, companies try to make buying goods and services online as hassle-free as possible, and their success at doing so is part of the reason this holiday season is predicted to rack up $83 billion in spendings.

Given that, it's hard to remember when groceries, clothes or someone to assemble your Ikea furniture weren't just a click away, yet Fast Company's Michael Grothaus reminds us that online shopping is quite new, relatively speaking. But despite the passage of only a few decades, he writes, there are a number of contenders for the first e-commerce transaction. 

For starters, a video made by Shopify, an e-commerce software company, tells the story of a deal struck between students at Stanford University and MIT sometime between 1971 and 1972 to buy some weed via ARPANET, the precursor to the internet we know today

Proceed to Checkout: The Unexpected Story of How Ecommerce Started

However, this exchange doesn’t check all the boxes for e-commerce: it was illegal and money wasn’t transferred online. Instead, the event probably represents the first deal facilitated by the internet. 

Shopify also mentions a 1984 sale, when 72-year old Jane Snowball utilized a device called a Videotex to use her television to order margarine, eggs and cornflakes from her local grocery store via phone lines. The British grandmother paid in cash and accepted the hand delivered groceries. But the lack of electronic money exchange likely disqualifies this interaction from being the first online sale, and for similar reasons, a talking computer that helped Donald Sherman call up a pizzeria to place his order in 1974 also doesn’t quite make it.

What likely counts as the very first legitimate online transaction goes to Dan Kohn in August 1994, who creating a website called NetMarket, the Shopify video reports. On August 11, Kohn sold a CD of Sting’s "Ten Summoner’s Tales" to a friend in Philadelphia, writes Peter H. Lewis wrote for The New York Times. Kohn’s friend paid $12.48 plus shipping, and he used data encryption software to send his credit card number securely. "Even if the N.S.A. was listening in, they couldn't get his credit card number," Kohn told The New York Times

Despite the report in The New York Times, however, another website called The Internet Shopping Network claims that it started selling computer equipment online about a month before the rock CD’s headline-grabbing sale, reports Alorie Gilbert for CNET

So depending how you slice it, the first internet transaction could have involved pizza, weed, a CD or computer parts. Of course, now the online shopper can get any of these - though the rock music would probably come in a different format. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.