ITKarma picture

& lt; & lt; Before: Statisticians

From about 1975 to 1995, computers became more accessible much faster than computer networks. First, in the United States, and then in other rich countries, computers have become commonplace for wealthy households, and have appeared in almost all institutions. However, if the users of these computers had a desire to combine their machines - for exchanging e-mail, downloading programs, searching for communities to discuss their favorite hobbies - they did not have so many opportunities. Home users could connect to services like CompuServe. However, until in the late 1980s services introduced a fixed monthly payment, the cost of connection was paid for every hour, and tariffs were not available to everyone. Some university students and faculty could connect to packet-switched networks, but this was not available to most. By 1981, only 280 computers had access to ARPANET. CSNET and BITNET will eventually include hundreds of computers, but they only started working in the early 1980s. And at that time in the USA there were more than 3,000 institutes where students received higher education, and almost all of them had several computers, from large mainframes to small workstations.

Communities, home craftsmen and scientists who did not gain access to the network turned to the same technical solutions that allowed them to communicate with each other. They hacked into the good old telephone system, Bell's network, turning it into something like a telegraph, transmitting digital messages instead of voices, and on their basis messages from computer to computer all over the country and around the world.

These were some of the earliest decentralized [peer-to-peer, p2p] computer networks. Unlike CompuServe and other centralized systems, to which computers were connected, sucking information from them like calves - milk, information was distributed through decentralized networks in the manner of circles on the water. It could start anywhere and come anywhere. Nevertheless, heated debates arose in them over politics and power. When the Internet attracted the attention of the community in the 1990s, many thought it was equalizing social and economic ties. By allowing everyone to connect with everyone, the mediators and bureaucrats that dominated our lives will be cut off. There will come a new era of direct democracy and open markets, where everyone will have equal votes and equal access. Such prophets might have refrained from such promises, having studied the fate of Usenet and Fidonet of the 1980s. Their technical structure was very flat, but any computer network is only part of the human community. And human communities, no matter how you stir and roll them, still remain full of lumps.


In the summer of 1979, the life of Tom Traskot resembled the dream of any young computer lover. He recently earned a degree in computer science from Duke University, was interested in chess, and did an internship at Bell Labs headquarters in New Jersey. It was there that he had the chance to chat with the creators of Unix, the latest craze that swept the world of scientific computing.

The origins of Unix, like the Internet itself, lie in the shadow of American telecommunications policy. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie of Bell’s laboratories in the late 1960s decided to create a more flexible and truncated version of the massive Multics system from MIT, the creation of which they participated as programmers. The new OS quickly became a hit in the laboratories, gaining popularity both with modest hardware requirements (due to which it was launched even on inexpensive machines) and high flexibility. However, AT & amp; T could not capitalize on this success. By agreement of 1956 with the US Department of Justice, AT & amp; T was required to sell a license for all non-telephony technologies at reasonable prices and not engage in any business other than providing communications.

Therefore, AT & amp; T began selling the Unix license to universities for scientific use on very favorable terms. The first licensees to gain access to the source code began to create and sell their own Unix variants, of which it is worth noting the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) Unix, created on the flagship campus of the University of California. The new OS quickly overwhelmed the academic community. Unlike other popular OSs like DEC TENEX/TOPS-20, it could run on hardware from various manufacturers, and many of these computers were quite inexpensive. Berkeley distributed the program at a negligible price, in addition to the modest license cost from AT & amp; T. Unfortunately, I could not find the exact numbers.

It seemed to Truskot that he was at the source of all things. He spent the summer as an intern at Ken Thompson, and started every day with several volleyball matches, then after midday he worked, and shared dinner in the form of pizza with his idols, after which he sat until late, writing down the code for Unix in C.At the end of the internship, he did not want to lose touch with this world, so as soon as he returned to Duke University in the fall, he figured out how to connect a PDP 11/70 computer from the computer science department to the womb ship in Murray Hill using a program written by him a former colleague, Mike Lesk. The program was called uucp — Unix to Unix copy — and was one of a set of “uu” programs included in the recently released Unix OS 7. The program allowed one Unix system to communicate with another by modem. Specifically, uucp allowed files to be copied between two computers connected via modem, which allowed Traskot to exchange emails with Thompson and Ritchie.

ITKarma picture
Tom Traskot

Jim Ellis, another graduate student at the Truskot Institute, installed a new version of Unix 7 on Duke's computer. However, the update brought not only advantages, but also disadvantages. The USENIX program, distributed by the Unix user group, designed to send news to all users of a specific Unix system, stopped working in the new version. Traskot and Ellis decided to replace it with their own new program compatible with the 7th system, give it more interesting features, and return the improved version to the user community in exchange for prestige and honor.

At the same time, Traskot used uucp to communicate with a Unix-powered machine at the University of North Carolina, 15 km southwest, in Chapel Hill, and chatted with local student Steve Belovin.

It is not known how Traskot and Belovin met, but it is possible that they became close on the basis of chess. Both of them participated in the annual Association of Computer Systems chess tournament, although not at the same time.

Belovin also made his own program for distributing news, in which, interestingly, there was the concept of news groups, broken down by topics that could be subscribed to - instead of one channel into which all the news fell. Belovin, Traskot and Ellis decided to join forces and write a network news system with news groups that would use uucp to distribute news on different computers. They wanted to distribute Unix-related news to USENIX users, which is why they called their system Usenet.

Duke University was supposed to serve as a central information and analytical center, and use automatic dialing and uucp to connect to all nodes of the network at regular intervals, to pick up news updates and give news to other network members. Belovin wrote the original code, but he worked on shell scripts, so he was very slow. Then Stephen Daniel, another graduate student at Duke University, rewrote the program in C. Daniel's version became known as A News. Ellis touted the program in January 1980 at the Usenix conference in Boulder, Colorado, and handed out all eighty copies of it brought with him. By the next Usenix conference in the summer, its organizers had already included A News in a software package distributed to all participants.

The creators described this system as "ARPANET for the poor." You may not consider Duke University as some second-rate, but at that time he did not have such an influence in the world of computer science that would allow him to connect to this premium American computer network. But permission to access Usenet was not required - all that was needed was a Unix system, a modem and the ability to pay phone bills for regular news broadcasts. By the early 1980s, almost all institutes where they had higher education could satisfy these requirements.

Private companies also joined Usenet, which helped accelerate network expansion. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) has agreed to take on the role of an intermediary between Duke University and the University of California at Berkeley, reducing the cost of long-distance calls and data transfer between coasts.As a result, Berkeley on the west coast became the second Usenet hub, and connected the network with the University of California at San Francisco and San Diego, as well as other institutions, including Sytek, one of the first LAN-related companies. ARPANET was also located in Berkeley, which allowed us to establish a connection between Usenet and ARPANET (after the news exchange program was rewritten by Mark Horton and Matt Glickman, calling it B News). ARPANET nodes began to collect content from Usenet and vice versa, although ARPA rules, strictly speaking, forbade communication with other networks. The network grew rapidly, from fifteen nodes processing ten posts per day in 1980, to 600 nodes and 120 posts in 1983, and then 5000 nodes and 1000 posts in 1987.

Initially, its creators saw Usenet as a way of communication for members of the Unix user community and discuss the development of this OS. To do this, they created two groups, net.general and net.v7bugs (the latter discussed problems with the latest version). However, they left in the system the possibility of free expansion. Anyone could create a new group in the “net” hierarchy, and users quickly began to add topics that were far from technical, for example, net.jokes. Just as anyone could send anything, recipients could ignore groups of their choice. For example, the system could connect to Usenet and request data only for the net.v7bugs group, ignoring the rest of the content. Unlike the carefully planned ARPANET, Usenet organized on its own, and grew in an anarchist manner without supervision from above.

However, in this artificially democratic environment, a hierarchical order quickly emerged. A certain set of nodes with a large number of connections and high traffic began to be considered the "backbone" of the system. This process developed naturally. Since each transfer of data from one node to another added a delay in communications, each new node connecting to the network wanted to contact a node that already had a large number of connections in order to minimize the number of “hops” required to distribute its messages over the network. Among the nodes of the ridge, there were both educational and corporate organizations, and usually every local computer was run by some wayward person who voluntarily took upon himself the ungrateful task of administering everything that passed through the computer. These were Gary Murakami of the Bell Labs Division in Indian Hills, Illinois, or Gene Spafford of Georgia Institute of Technology.

The most significant manifestation of the power of site administrators from this ridge occurred in 1987, when they pushed the reorganization of the newsgroup namespace by introducing seven new first-level sections. There were sections such as comp for computer themes and rec for entertainment. Subsections were hierarchically organized under the “Big Seven” - for example, the comp.lang.c group to discuss the C language, and to discuss board games. The group of rebels, who considered this change a coup organized by the "Spinal Clique", created their own branch from the hierarchy, whose alt was the main directory, and their parallel ridge. It included topics that were considered indecent for the big seven - for example, sex and soft drugs (, as well as all sorts of bizarre communities that administrators did not like (for example, alt.gourmand; admins preferred a harmless group

By then, software supporting Usenet had expanded beyond the distribution of plain text, and introduced support for binary files (so named because they contained arbitrary binary digits). Most often, the files included pirated computer games, pornographic pictures and films, bootlegging recordings from concerts and other illegal material. Groups in the alt.binaries hierarchy were included in the list of the most frequently blocked on Usenet servers due to their combination of high cost (pictures and videos took up much more traffic and storage space than text) and disputed legal status.

But despite all this controversy, by the end of the 1980s, Usenet had become a place where computer experts could find international communities of like-minded people. In 1991 alone, Tim Berners-Lee announced the creation of a worldwide WWW network in the alt.hypertext group; Linus Torvalds asked to leave comp.os.minix reviews of his new small Linux project; Peter Adkison, thanks to a story about his gaming company, which he posted in the group, met Richard Garfield. Their collaboration led to the creation of the popular card game Magic: The Gathering.


However, despite the fact that ARPANET for the poor was gradually spreading around the globe, lovers of microcomputers, whose resources were much less than those of the seediest college, were mostly cut off from electronic communications. Unix OS, which by the standards of academic institutions was a cheap and angry option, was inaccessible for owners of computers with 8-bit microprocessors running CP/M, which was little capable of anything other than providing work with drives. However, they soon began their own simple experiment to create a very cheap decentralized network, and it all started with the creation of bulletin boards "bulletin boards.

It is possible that because of the simplicity of the idea and the huge number of computer enthusiasts that existed at that time, the electronic bulletin board (BBS) could be invented several times. But by tradition, the primacy is recognized for the project Word Christensen and Randy Sewess from Chicago, which they launched during 1978 long blizzard . Christensen and Sewess were computer enthusiasts, both were 30 years old, and both went to a local computer club. They had long planned to create their own server in a computer club, where club members could download news articles using the modem file transfer software that Christensen wrote for CP/M - the home equivalent of uucp. But the blizzard, which detained them at home for several days, gave them the necessary incentive in order to begin work on it. Christensen was mainly involved in software, and Sewess - in iron. In particular, Sewess developed a scheme that automatically rebooted the computer from the running BBS program every time it detected an incoming call. This hack was necessary so that the system was guaranteed to be in a suitable condition for receiving this call - such was the precarious state of home hardware and software in those days. They called their invention CBBS, a computerized bulletin board, but later, most system operators (or sysops) omitted C for brevity, and called their service simply BBS. At first, BBS was also called RCP/M, that is, remote CP/M (remote CP/M). They described the details of their offspring in the popular computer magazine Byte, and soon a crowd of imitators followed.

Fertilized blooming scene BBS new device - Hayes Modem. Dennis Hayes was another computer lover, and he really wanted to connect a modem to his new machine. But the commercial copies that were on sale fell into only two categories: devices intended for business buyers, and therefore too expensive for home lovers, and modems with acoustic communication . To contact someone using an acoustic modem, you first had to phone someone or answer a call, and then put the receiver on the modem so that it could communicate with the modem at the other end. It was not possible to automate an outgoing or incoming call in this way. Therefore, in 1977, Hayes developed, made, and began to sell his own modem with data transmission at a speed of 300 bits per second, which could be inserted inside his computer. Christensen and Sewess used one of these early models of a Hayes modem in their BBS. However, the first breakthrough product of Hayes was the 1981 Smartmodem, which was delivered in a separate case, with its own microprocessor, and connected to the computer via a serial port. It sold for $ 299, which was quite affordable for amateurs who usually spent several hundred dollars on their home computers.

ITKarma picture
Hayes Smartmodem at 300 baud

One of them was Tom Jennings , and it was he who launched the project, which became something like Usenet for BBS. He worked as a programmer at Phoenix Software in San Francisco, and in 1983 decided to write his own program for BBS, not just for CP/M, but for the newest and best OS for microcomputers - Microsoft DOS. He called it Fido [a typical name for a dog], in honor of the computer that he used at work, so named because it consisted of a terrible mishmash of various components. John Madil, a ComputerLand salesman in Baltimore, found out about Fido and called Jennings across the country to ask him to help change his program so that it runs on his DEC Rainbow 100 computer. This couple started working on the software, and then to he was joined by another Rainbow fan, Ben Baker from St. Louis. Trinity spent a significant amount of money on long-distance calls while they called on each other's cars at night to chat in chat rooms.

In the process of all these negotiations on different BBSs, Jennings began to have an idea in his head - he could create a whole network of BBSs that would exchange messages at night when the cost of long-distance communication was low. This idea was not new - many amateurs imagined such a message passing between BBS, since the appearance of the article by Christensen and Sewess in Byte. However, they usually assumed that in order for this scheme to work, you must first achieve a very high density of BBS and build complex routing rules so that all calls remain local, that is, inexpensive, even when transferring messages from one coast to another. However, Jennings made quick calculations and realized that with an increased speed of modems (amateur modems were already working at a speed of 1200 bps) and decreasing long-distance tariffs, such tricks were no longer needed. Even with a significant increase in message traffic, it was possible to transfer texts between systems, spending only a few bucks a night.

ITKarma picture
Tom Jennings, frame from a 2002 documentary

Then he added another program to Fido. From one o'clock until two in the night Fido was closed and started by FidoNet. She checked the list of outgoing messages in the file with the list of nodes. Each outgoing message had a node number, and each element of the list denoted a network node - Fido BBS - which had a phone number nearby. If outgoing messages were found, FidoNet in turn dialed the corresponding BBS phones from the list of nodes and passed them to the FidoNet program, which was waiting for a call from that side. Suddenly, Madill, Jennings and Baker had the opportunity to easily and simply work together, albeit at the cost of a delayed reaction. They did not receive messages during the day; messages were sent at night.

Prior to this, lovers rarely contacted other lovers who lived in another locality, since they mostly called local BBS for free. But if this BBS was connected to FidoNet, then users suddenly got the opportunity to exchange emails with other people across the country. The scheme immediately turned out to be incredibly popular, and the number of FidoNet users began to grow rapidly, and in a year reached 200. In this regard, Jennings was getting worse and worse at managing his own site. So during the first FidoCon meeting in St. Louis, Jennings and Baker met with Ken Kaplan, another DEC Rainbow fan who soon took on one of the important roles in the FidoNet leadership. They came up with a new scheme dividing North America into subnets, each of which consists of local nodes.In each subnet, one administrative node took responsibility for managing the local list of nodes, received incoming traffic for its subnet, and sent messages to the corresponding local nodes. Above the layer of subnets were zones covering the entire continent. At the same time, the system still supported one global list of nodes, containing the phone numbers of all computers connected to FidoNet in the world, so theoretically any node could directly call any other to deliver messages.

The new architecture allowed the system to continue to grow, and by 1986 it had increased to 1,000 nodes, and by 1989 to 5,000. Each of these nodes (which was a BBS) had an average of 100 active users. The two most popular applications were the simplest mail exchange Jennings built into FidoNet, and Echomail, created by Jeff Rush, a BBS sysop from Dallas. Echomail was the functional equivalent of Usenet newsgroups, and allowed thousands of FidoNet users to conduct public discussions on various topics. Echoes, as individual groups were called, had single names, in contrast to the hierarchical Usenet system, from AD & amp; D to MILHISTORY and ZYMURGY (home-made beer making).

Jennings' philosophical views gravitated toward anarchy, and he wanted to create a neutral platform that would be driven only by technical standards:

I told users that they can do whatever they want. I have been holding this point of view for eight years, and I had no problems supporting BBS. Only people with fascist inclinations seeking to keep everything under control have problems. I believe that if you clearly state that the rules are followed by the callers - I’m even unpleasant to talk about it - if the callers determine the content, they can fight back all the goats.

However, as with Usenet, FidoNet’s hierarchical structure has enabled some sysops to gain more power than others, and rumors have circulated about the emergence of a powerful clique (this time based in St. Louis) that wants to take control of the network from people. Many were afraid that Kaplan or other people from his environment would try to commercialize the system and start taking money for using FidoNet. Particularly strong suspicions arose about the International FidoNet Association (IFNA), a non-profit association founded by Kaplan in order to pay part of the cost of system maintenance (especially long-distance calls). In 1989, it seemed that these suspicions were realized when the IFNA group of leaders put forward a referendum to make every FidoNet sysop a member of IFNA, and make the association the official organization that manages the network and is responsible for all its rules and regulations. The idea failed, and IFNA disappeared. Of course, the absence of a symbolic governing structure did not mean that there was no real power in the network; administrators of regional site lists introduced custom rules.

Shadow of the Internet

From the late 1980s onwards, FidoNet and Usenet gradually began to overshadow the shadow of the Internet. By the second half of the next decade, they were completely absorbed in it.

Usenet became intertwined with Internet sites thanks to the creation of the NNTP protocol - a network protocol for transmitting news - in early 1986. It was conceived by a couple of students at the University of California (one from a branch in San Diego, the other from Berkeley). NNTP allowed TCP/IP hosts on the Internet to create Usenet-compatible news servers. For several years, most of Usenet traffic has already gone through these nodes, and not through uucp over the good old telephone network. The independent uucp network gradually waned, and Usenet became the next application running over TCP/IP. The incredible flexibility of the multi-layered architecture of the Internet easily allowed it to absorb networks adapted for a single application.

Although there were several gateways between FidoNet and the Internet in the early 1990s that allowed networks to exchange messages, FidoNet was not the only application, so its traffic did not migrate to the Internet like it did with Usenet. Instead, when people outside of academia first began to study Internet access in the second half of the 1990s, BBS gradually either became absorbed in the Internet or became unnecessary. Commercial BBS gradually fell into the first category.CompuServes such mini-copies offered access to BBS for a monthly fee to thousands of users, and they had several modems to receive several incoming calls simultaneously. With the advent of commercial Internet access, these enterprises connected their BBS to the nearest part of the Internet and began to offer access to it to their customers as part of the subscription. The more sites and services appearing on the booming World Wide Web, the fewer users are subscribing to specific BBS services, and therefore these commercial BBSs have gradually turned into simple Internet service providers, ISPs. Most amateur BBS turned into ghost towns as users who wanted to go online went to local providers as well as to branches of larger organizations like America Online.

All this is wonderful, but how did the Internet take such a dominant position? How did the little-known academic system spread over elite universities for years, while systems like Minitel, CompuServe, and Usenet attracted millions of users, suddenly burst into the foreground and spread like a weed, absorbing everything that came before it? How did the Internet become the force that completed the era of fragmentation?

What else to read and see

  • Ronda Hauben and Michael Hauben, Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, (online 1994, print 1997)
  • Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community (1993)
  • Peter H. Salus, Casting the Net (1995)
  • Jason Scott, BBS: The Documentary (2005)