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Tuesday, August 13, 2002


My post directly below, which off-handedly noted that the Europeans could have built their own network, instead of using "ours", gave me a fit of nostalgia. And I'm going to inflict it on you all. So take my hand, as we stroll down Insufficient Memory Lane. Try not to step in the jargon. (It won't actually say much about European networks, alas.)

I got my first email account toward the end of the Second Age. That is, after the Great Renaming, and before the rise of the Dark Lords of AOL. In your tongue, late 1987. The Nets were many, and not yet One. There was BITNET, which I was on, and the Internet, another network entirely, which sprang fully-formed from the forehead of ARPANET. (I think there was a bit of a class structure here. Real Research Universities were on the Internet; lame-o universities had to make do with BITNET, I guess.) If I wanted to send email (a term which was probably carved in stone when I first heard it, but which I hated and resisted as long as I could) to someone at an Internet site, I had to send it through a gateway. The only one I remember was the one at CUNY. So, for example, I would send email addressed to

For years, we got little messages back every time mail was routed to another host. When you sent a message east, you would see it arrive (I'm making these routings up, but this was the general gist) at U. Illinois, then Ohio State, then Penn State, and so forth on to CUNY. Eventually we got on the Internet too, but there were still definite nodes. So if sent a message west, you could watch your mail hop from Illinois to Ohio MIT, say, and then it would magically hop all the way to California. Or sometimes it just went straight west to start with. Mail from our university to another in the same town sometimes had to go all the way to the east coast before coming back again. These little messages were annoying if your mail got delayed and they kept coming in hours after you'd sent it (as would happen if a host were down), but at least you'd see that your mail did get to the intended target, and you could start being irritated that he hadn't emailed you back yet.

But there were other networks besides those two. There was JANET, which was in the UK; EUNET and EARN in Europe; JUNET, which I believe was Japan, and there were several others, rather more specialized (like DECnet, which ran only on VAX computers, and had addresses like host::user, and required forms like "host::user"@gateway.domain to go across networks), and then there was UUCP. That stands for Unix to Unix Copy Protocol, and is (or was) a built-in function of Unix. (I just upgraded my Linux machine, and UUCP was still available. I was tempted to install it, just to see what I could do with it. But I didn't really have the time to fiddle.) UUCP addresses were backwards to everyone else's, so for example to send email from an internet site to a site using UUCP, you'd do something like this: primary!secondary!host!, where primary was a relay that sent the message to secondary that sent the message to host, where your user had an account. No, you wouldn't necessarily know what the names of the relays were, nor how many there would be. And, of course, if you wanted to send the email across three networks, you'd do something like primary!secondary!host! Something along those lines.

So sending an email message was not necessarily easy or reliable. I had guys in Ireland asking me (in Missouri) how to send messages to Hawaii.

For about three years our professional society published an addendum to the membership directory, which included not only email addresses but a long introductory section which explained how to send email across networks (similar to this guide). After that, the bottom fell right out of the "local email guru" market, and people stopped bringing offerings of cookies and live chickens. (Apparently O'Reilly used to have a whole book just on this subject.)

I am a complete packrat, but occasionally I get into "throw all the junk out" fits; I sure hope somewhere I have a copy of the addendum and aweful incantations that caused email to appear in our mailboxes.

More cures for insomnia:

The Jargon File.

A Brief History of the Internet.

The first email message. The first use of network mail...announced its own existence.

Ha ha! Check out this list of internet restrictions from 1990. Users are prohibited from using the AT&T Gateway to send messages between for-profit (e.g. Compuserve, Prodigy) networks, and the Internet. Also, no offers of goods or services for sale. Ah, the good old days.