Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hey, it costs a lot to provide a liberal arts education

As I have mentioned ad nauseum, I happened to be at the right place at the right time to witness the birth of the Internet.

Well, a predecessor to the Internet that we all know and hate today.

Back in the early 1980s, I attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon and found myself using a networked service called Usenet. However, I was just a user of the service, and didn't know what was going on behind the scenes.

But let's start with the story of how Usenet was pitched (by James Ellis) to the system administrators at various universities, college, research institutions, and tech companies:

At the Winter 80 (January) Usenix I gave a short talk announcing the
creation of Usenet and inviting anyone to join. We even had printed up
little forms for folks to fill out giving their uucp info, etc....

It seems like it was only a few days after the
talk that our first site requested a connection - Reed college in Portland, OR
of all places. They had no dialer either so we had to call them - they were
willing to be billed for the charges. I don't recall if we ever billed them
or if we were ever paid, but Duke's department Chairman at the time seemed
very willing (to me) to foot some expenses to get Usenet off the ground.

So was Duke University paying for my privilege to receive Paddy O'Furniture jokes?

In addition, if you were an early Usenet user, you'll recall that Usenet posts would show the way in which a post was routed from another system to your system. As Ellis explains, some of the routing did not make logical sense:

I do recall that for a long while after Berkeley and Research were providing
cross-country connectivity, the connections were often very wasteful.
One of the worst examples was that Tektronix, in Oregon, couldn't send
e-mail to some other site (Reed?) a local phone call away because it was
against policy to set up the connection. But they could, and did, send mail
via Berkeley/Research/Duke going cross-country twice to reach a local
phone call away!

Remember that this was back in the day in which very few people paid a flat rate for nationwide phone service, so the expense of these cross-country calls was expensive indeed.

Another comment - Reed was influencing online interactions well before this Usenet connection was established, as this post shows.

Troy Dawson wrote in and reminded me that the venerable Empire appeared on mainframes in the mid-to-late 1970s. His quote from a USEnet post:

Peter S. Langston did indeed write the original code based on a board game they'd been playing at Reed College. He started writing the original version of Empire in about 1972, and it was playable not long after.

When I arrived at Reed several years after 1972, Empire was still being played. I never entered the room where the game was held, but Empire could be considered to be Risk on steroids - massive, massive, steroids. If you're interested, check this website and this Wikipedia entry.
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