​The day America Online went offline in 1996

If you thought Twitter and Facebook outages were bad, then you probably don't remember the great online disruption of 1996. As the "CBS Evening News" reported, America Online - the world's largest computer service at the time - went down for 19 hours on a Wednesday in August.

"It could be called the silence of the techno nerds," reported CBS News correspondent Peter Van Sant, who now reports for "48 Hours."

aol-message.jpg
The error message that greeted AOL users during the 19-hour outage
CBS News

The disruption blacked out 6 million people, cutting them off from Internet access. Though capabilities at the time were not nearly as robust as today's Internet - the blackout was still a major inconvenience.

"You couldn't have electronic chat sessions online and you couldn't get instant news and stock quotes," said John Quain of PC Magazine.

john-quain.jpg
John Quain of PC Magazine
CBS News

To highlight the impact of the outage Van Sant spoke with Starfish Software, a company in Scotts Valley, California, who was launching a new product when AOL cut them off from potential customers.

"We first kind of just looked at each other and said gosh, now what do we do?" said Gregg Armstrong, of Starfish Software.

outputy8zadh.gif
Various images show the different sites people could frequent via AOL in 1996
CBS News

Just as frustrated as businesses were AOL's regular users, who apparently had a less than flattering nickname.

"For some netheads and geeks - and that's what they call themselves - the crash of America Online left them feeling lost in cyberspace," said Van Sant.

Van Sant went to a "nethead" hang out - a New York City computer coffee house called Cyberfelds - to see just how lost people were.

peter-van-sant.jpg
CBS News correspondent Peter Van Sant at Cyberfelds in New York City
CBS News

A physics student told Van Sant she had been flirting online when AOL went down, forcing her to lose a potential relationship. She described the outage as a "black day."

Left with no Internet to play with or to conduct business, people begrudgingly turned to other means of communication.

"The worst thing of all for many netheads was having to resort to a more primitive technology: telephones and faxes," reported Van Sant.

AOL apologized for the crash and explained that its system went down during regular maintenance. One analyst with Jupiter Communications blamed the long outage on AOL's inability to keep up with its rapid user growth. The company had gained more than 1.3 million users in 8 months.

The company did offer its customers a free day of service, which wasn't a bad deal considering back then a monthly user would have had to pay $41 for 19 hours of online use.

And that's the way it was on Wednesday, August 7th, 1996.