I was telling this story to someone the other day and they suggested that I ought to write it down, so I decided it might make a good blog article.
In 1994, a friend of mine, Steve Fulling, was in Oregon building a statewide, high-speed network to connect the state's engineering schools at DS3 speeds (for you youngsters that was pretty fast in 1994). The project was called NeroNet. Steve talks about how they'd sit around the conference room hypothesizing things that people might do with a high-speed network. They came up with lots of lofty ideas: exchanging x-rays, doing weather simulations, doing physics experiments, distributed computations, etc.
At the same time, I was in Utah build an eCommerce site called iMALL.com with another friend named Ross Jardine. One of our first ideas was to create something we called "Deals of the Day." There was a company in Orem Utah that was kind of a 1980's version of an Overstock.com: they bought distressed merchandise and then liquidated it. But since there was no Internet, they did it by sending out faxes to thousands of small merchants who paid a monthly subscription fee to get access to the deals. We signed up to get the fax for few dollars a day and then put them on the net. Within months we were the company's largest distributor by far and Deals of the Day was off to a multi-year run as an iMALL.com staple.
That's where these two stories come together. In the beginning of October 1994, iMALL.com went live and Deals of the Day featured its first deal: a case of six Wonder Mops. I called Steve with some excitement and told him we were live and that he could now buy something on the Internet. It so happens, that he was just going into one of these brainstorming sessions on what to do with all the bandwidth NeroNet would deliver to the engineering schools of Oregon. He walked in, pulled up iMALL.com in Mosaic (bonus points if you know what that is) and told the assembled group of academics, "I know what our network is going to be used for: selling mops."
Of course, there were the expected guffaws and then they all pitched in and bought a case of mops---iMALL.com's first sale. If I remember right, the price for a case of mops was $36. Now, I don't know for sure that these mops were the first credit card purchase of a consumer good on the Internet, but if it wasn't the first, it was darn close. We've still got one of those mops (courtesy of Steve) and I've shown it off many times as the beginning of eCommerce.