The Victory of Greenwood: Emmit J. McHenry

Emmit J. McHenry

The history of Silicon Valley’s technological and cultural revolution during the birth of the commercial internet includes names such as Tim Berners-Lee, Linus Torvalds, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. However, one name is notably missing: Emmit J. McHenry. The Booker T. Washington High School varsity athlete is the network technology visionary responsible for making domain names commercially available via the company he founded, Network Solutions. Before individuals and companies could communicate via email, transfer files online, and create websites, Network Solutions focused on developing the TCP/IP protocol and introduced the first interoperability software package (OpenLink) which allowed computers to communicate over the internet. Beating the Stanford Research Institute team in creating a public domain name registration system, Network Solutions positioned themselves as the exclusive company to provide this service; in the early 1990s if you wanted a .com, you had to buy it from McHenry.

Interestingly, in keeping with the spirit of Greenwood entrepreneurs before him and with the spirit of the open-source nature of internet technologies, McHenry also democratized a complex and proprietary process. Because of Network Solutions, any individual or company who wanted to register a domain name could have one. McHenry’s innovations opened the door for the “dotcom” explosion of economic activity beginning in the early 1990s. Without McHenry, websites would be impossibly hard to navigate. There would be no eCommerce. There would be no social media. By the time he sold Network Solutions in 1995, the company managed 60,000 domain names. According to the latest data from Verisign, one of the world’s largest internet infrastructure companies (and a direct descendant of Network Solutions), as of the beginning of 2020, there are currently 366.8 million domain name registrations.

Roots in Arkansas
Emmit Thurman Jones McHenry was born July 12, 1943, in Forrest City, Arkansas. His maternal great-grandparents were both of Native American and African ancestry, and their ancestors migrated into Arkansas from Alabama. His maternal great-grandfather worked as a carpenter and operated a whiskey still. McHenry’s great-grandmother was both a farmer and an entrepreneur. She was the person that the community of Black farmers and sharecroppers in Arkansas could count on to negotiate fair prices for them when bringing their crops to market.

His father was Herman McHenry, born in 1925 in Madison, Arkansas. Herman’s mother was a minister. She led such a devoted congregation that wherever she moved, her church moved with her. She moved to Oklahoma, and her church followed her. She was also known as a mystic healer and a spiritual guide. Family stories describe her healing people in church revivals. At only 5’2”, she was called “Miss Little Bit,” but she had the heart of a lioness and was not someone to be trifled with. It was said that she could step into any argument and break it up. She was also known for adopting children. As Emmit McHenry revealed in an interview for HistoryMakers in 2003, one of the mysteries in his family is whether or not his father was adopted.

McHenry’s mother was Mary Thurman Barnett. Mary and Herman married young. Soon after their marriage, Herman McHenry was drafted into military service. When he returned, his parents divorced. Ms. Mary had nine children (of whom Emmit was the eldest). When one of their neighbors who had five children died and the father abandoned the family, Ms. Mary adopted four of them (the eldest child chose to strike out on his own). Ms. Mary took a job in a laundry as a presser, where she worked for several years. Over the years, as more job opportunities opened up for women, she later worked in a retail store and then went back to school. After she graduated, she worked in the public school system as a nutritionist until she retired.

One could say that Emmit didn’t know either of his parents very well. As the oldest of nine children, he was sent away to elementary school in Kansas City, Missouri, to live with a relative who didn’t have children. When Emmit returned home at twelve years of age, his father convinced Mary to allow Emmit to move to Tulsa to live with his mother, Emmit’s grandmother. His father also had some extended family in Tulsa, so Emmit had cousins in Tulsa. From the age of 12, Emmit attended school in Tulsa, was raised by his grandmother, only having the opportunity to spend time with his mother and siblings during summer vacations in Arkansas.

Life in Greenwood
Emmit grew up in a house on Madison Avenue and attended Carver Middle School. In the mid-1950s, Greenwood Avenue ran north from Archer Street, up to Pine Street, close to Carver. Since Greenwood was between the middle school and Emmit’s home, he would spend time after school on Greenwood, playing with friends and his cousins, or going to the movies. He remembered the Greenwood of his childhood as a vibrant community. Of Carver, he described, “It was in a way kind of an extended family and they took pride in your doing well. So if you did well, the teachers really got excited about that and worked with you on it. Yeah, it was a really wonderful experience for me.” After Carver, Emmit attended Booker T. Washington High School.

Emmit wrote his first poem in the third grade, about a tree, as a gift to his mother. “I often thought I should’ve been a poet.” he said, reflecting on his early schooling while he was trying to find his way. He also played trombone in middle school, imagining for a time that he might be a musician. But his success in school would come at Booker T. through sports, where he played football and wrestled. He also graduated as the president of his class, and participated in student government, being elected the youth Mayor of Tulsa, and then youth Secretary of State, through YMCA’s Hi-Y program.

Excelling in both sports and academics, in 1962 McHenry had his pick of several outstanding universities. He was offered a football scholarship to Tennessee State University in Nashville. He chose to go to the University of Denver on a wrestling scholarship instead. He began in Denver majoring in physics, then discovered communications and changed his major. He graduated with a degree in communications in 1966.

Hard Work and Good Luck
McHenry’s early career can be best described as a series of lucky breaks, which he did not take for granted, and he worked hard to leverage opportunities to get to the next level. Immediately after graduating from the University of Denver, he interviewed with IBM and was offered a job. Before the interview—the first and only job interview he attended—he read everything he could about IBM, their history as well as their technology. At IBM, he became a systems engineer, learning older unit record equipment that involved wiring control panels by hand and a new kind of computer system: the IBM System/360 Model 30. During the mid-1960s, the 360 series of computers was the first line of computers to allow machine language programs to be written. Instead of wiring a control board or running a computer program via inputting a box of punch cards, these new computers could be programmed. The computer programs could be stored on magnetic tape drives, the largest of which could store 64 kilobytes of memory (about half the contents of this book).

After a year working at IBM in Denver and then St. Paul, Minnesota, McHenry was drafted into the Marine Corps. He then attended graduate school at Northwestern University School of Communication in Evanston, Illinois. At the same time, he started a consulting practice and served as the school’s assistant Dean. Impressed by his work, Union Mutual Insurance Company in Maine recruited him to help them restructure the company. The year before he was hired, the company lost money for the first time in 121 years, and they were desperate to try different ideas for reorganization and performance. McHenry took the challenge and relocated to Maine, where he lived for seven years.

The Spark of Innovation
During his consulting days in Maine, McHenry met Ty Grigsby. The two began talking about the potential to merge voice and computer data through networks of computers. The U. S. Department of Defense had created the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1966. By the late 1970s, networking technologies developed under the program were being made available to large corporations and universities. The potential to merge telecommunications and emerging computer technology inspired what would later become the internet. Early pioneers who understood the potential of how this technology could revolutionize communications were eager to keep innovating and pushing the envelope. “It was that small tickle in my brain was really the beginning of Network Solutions” McHenry founded the company with Ty Grigsby, Gary Desler, and Ed Peters in Tysons Corner, Virginia, in 1979, putting their savings, their mortgages, their credit cards, everything they had into getting this new spark of an idea off the ground.

In its early days, Network Solutions was a consulting company for building telecommunications network systems for Boeing, IBM, and eventually would earn contracts with the federal government. While getting Network Solutions off the ground, McHenry was also working as a consultant for Allstate Insurance, doing some of the same type of corporate strategy and restructuring work he had done in Maine. This went on for several years but was unsustainable; the company wasn’t growing as fast as the founders wanted, McHenry was traveling more than working, and was more suited to being the CEO of Network Solutions than treating it as a side gig. The company during this time was in a precarious position. Despite landing large contracts with federal agencies (one of which was developing the communications systems for the space shuttle program under NASA), most of Network Solutions’ revenue was going toward paying off its debts.

Network Solutions’ Big Break
The Department of Defense controlled all domain names in the early 1980s. A domain name makes it easier to find a networked service online—to visit a website, send an email, or transfer a file. For example, instead of having to remember to type the server’s IP address into your web browser, all you have to do is type During this time, the internet still only consisted of a few networks operated by the military and a few universities. From the early 1970s until the late 1980s, domains were managed by the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA. If an institution wanted a new domain name, they would call Stanford and ask for Elizabeth Feinler, who ran the Network Information Center (NIC).

After a time, it became apparent that one person couldn’t manage domain names for everyone who wanted them. Even more of a challenge was updating servers to know what new domain names were registered. The Domain Name System (DNS) was created in 1983, so that servers around the world would know on which servers domains were located. If one thinks of networks as streets, a domain would be a house on that street. DNS is the address book, telling servers where each domain is located. On March 15, 1985, the first .com domain was registered by the computer company Symbolics, Inc.

Originally, .com domain names were intended for companies doing government contract work. But over time, it became clear that companies would want to communicate with each other through their computer networks. A long-distance call at this time would have been about $0.50 per minute (which doesn’t sound like much, but $1.00 and change would buy a gallon of gas). International calls were upwards of $3.00 per minute. Sending an email was free. Putting your company’s information on a web page was free.

This was Network Solutions’ moment to shine. They offered and were granted the contract to operate the DNS registry for .com, .org, .mil, .edu, and .net domain names. The following year, the company was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a registration system for domain name registration for the internet. At the time, they were the only company to talk to the NSF about commercializing the domain name registration process. In 1993, the NSF agreed, giving Network Solutions a 5-year contract to be the exclusive domain name registration company. The company charged $100 to register a domain name for two years. They gave $30 to the NSF, creating a win-win arrangement.

Boeing took over the registration of .mil domain names, but otherwise, if any company, organization, school, or nonprofit wanted a domain name, they would go through Network Solutions to register it. “I mean it was surprising that a small company would even think that they could beat Stanford Research Institute in any competition.” McHenry recalls. “But I’m a wrestler, so challenges like that I think, you take on, right? As we said, let’s take ‘em to the mat, and we won, we won that and had the root domain at our headquarters. Boom.”

In 1995, McHenry and the founders decided to sell the company to Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in San Diego, California. McHenry stayed on at SAIC for a short time but left despite leaving large sums of money on the table because he did not like the toxic culture at SAIC. “We were focused on proving some other things; we were focused on creating a culture where diverse people could really work together.”

What Might Have Been? What Might Be?
In a 2003 interview with HistoryMakers, McHenry replied without hesitation that the biggest regret of his career was selling Network Solutions too early. He sold his company to SAIC for $4.7 million (plus paying the company’s debts and stock for Network Solutions’ founders). Five years later, SAIC’s stock was valued at $21 billion. Beyond the opportunity cost, one wonders how different internet culture would have been different in the decades following McHenry’s leadership at the beginning of the internet revolution. Would names like Jerry Lawson (creator of the first cartridge-based video game system), Dr. Marc Hannah (co-founder of Silicon Graphics, Inc.), and Valerie Thomas (developed the first satellite to send images from space) come as quickly to our minds as Bill Gates? Would predators like Jeffrey Epstein and Julian Assange not have so quickly and easily been given a pedestal? Would technology companies be suffering the same diversity challenges as they are today? Would culture wars for voice and representation like the “Gamergate” controversy beginning in 2013 have occurred?

One can infinitely speculate about what might have been. In interviews and speeches, McHenry says that he would prefer to look toward the future than dwell on the past. He served on the boards of the Council on Competitiveness, NetCom Solutions International, Ltd. (U.K.), DECIS Technology, the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, and the State of Virginia Economic Development Authority. He currently leads Archura, LLC, a government-focused wireless telecommunication services company co-founded by his son, Kurt. He’s done important work mentoring the next generation of technology professionals—advising startup founders on team building, governance, marketing, and developing corporate cultures that are inclusive and innovative.

McHenry acknowledges his role as a leader, but warns Black and Brown communities against looking to one leader or savior. Instead, he stresses the importance of building community and seeing everyone in that community as having value. “We need a bunch of folks rising with ideas to help with making a difference. As you know…I grew up in a Black community where I saw the baker, the lawyer, the doctor, the wino. I saw all of that.” He attributes his successes to hard work, sacrifice, building on strong values, and seeing our shared humanity, explaining that these factors are more important than striving to be the most wealthy or the most powerful.

While he stresses the importance of learning math and technology, he says that understanding creativity and the humanities gave him his biggest insights. “The things I worked on, didn’t even exist in the human mind when I was born, so, it’s been a good run.” In February of 2020, The Oklahoma Eagle reported that McHenry was inducted into the Tulsa Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in football, wrestling, and tennis under legendary Booker T. Washington High School coaches, Art Williams and Ed Lacy. If there were an Internet Hall of Fame, McHenry would undoubtedly deserve a place there as well, not for making the most money or attracting the most famous venture capitalists, but for being one of the most significant pioneers in creating a globally connected community.