By John | February 11, 2008
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.
Summary of Von Miester’s Creations/Involvements
- Western Union Mailgram Service
- The Source
- Cable and Wireless (in the US)
- Quest Communications
All von Miester’s friends and business associates would agree that he was a horrendous businessman and a pathological dreamer. After about a year with a company, he would become obsessed with his next great idea and leave. In the end, more often than not, he was removed from his creation with no historical acknowledgment of his involvement. Sometimes, however, history has a way of fixing things. With a little bit of research, one can easily find that William von Meister’s footprint on history includes no less than the inventions of AOL, Western Union’s Mailgram service, Cable & Wireless’s entry into the America market, Digital FM radio, and the first utility that allowed consumers access to on-line information (“The Source”). In 1979, when Isaac Asimov first saw von Meister’s “Source,” he pronounced, “This is the beginning of the Information Age.” Von Meister, through his creation of the Source and his creation of what eventually became AOL, might be considered the single most important influence on getting most Americans on the Internet. In Alex Klein’s book Stealing Time, Alan Peyser, a former CEO of Cable and Wireless and close friend of von Meister, is quoted as saying, “I see all these things that say Steve Case was the founder of AOL, but I know better.”
Von Meister was the ultimate VC killer–you have to love him. One of his VC backers once said that he could raise money from the dead. Stealing Time includes a great story about how von Meister and his brother devised a plan for dealing with VC’s called “Dawn Patrol.” They would basically party their VC’s into submission. It all would start innocently enough with a morning meeting, then lunch at the Palm, and then an early dinner at von Miester’s luxurious house in Falls Church, Virgina. After dinner, the party would begin, and ,by the early hours of the next day, the drunk or hungover VC’s would beg to go home, at which point von Meister would start talking about going to his racquet club for tennis and cocktails. By then, the VC’s would say anything just to go home. In 1981, von Meister pitched an idea to Warner Brothers about allowing users to download digital music. Warner Brothers laughed him out of their office. He appears to have posthumously gotten the last laugh: 20 years later, AOL purchased Time Warner. Imagine what he would be thinking about if he were around today.