Bill von Meister

William F. von Meister, 53, a pioneer of the online services industry, died May 18 in Great Falls, Va. He was known as a consummate entrepreneur and promoter whose management capabilities rarely matched his vision.

Von Meister's first success was TDX Systems Inc., acquired in the 1970s by Cable & Wireless as its entree into U.S. markets. Later, with Bob Ryan and Jack Taub, he started Digital Broadcasting Corp., an FM transmission technology company. In 1979, DBC launched The Source, the first popular online services company.

In July 1979, when von Meister announced The Source at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Isaac Asimov, who was sharing the platform, proclaimed, "This is the beginning of the information age," recalls former Source executive Bettie Steiger, now a Xerox marketing executive at the Palo Alto Research Center.

But following several changes of ownership and near-death experiences, The Source was acquired by CompuServe. And by the mid-1980s von Meister had become a founder of of yet another company, Quantum Communications, which after undergoing a reorganization emerged as America Online.

"Bill was good with the press and could raise money from the dead," said a former backer. "And he was magnificent in the courts," where von Meister sometimes negotiated lucrative exit strategies.

A tennis player, race car driver and sailor, von Meister was, the former backer said, "a magnificent rogue."

--Esther Smith

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