DEV Community

Cover image for Bang! Old Email, Usenet and the End of the Cold War
Evan
Evan

Posted on

Bang! Old Email, Usenet and the End of the Cold War

In 1981, sending an email could take days.

Or so says an unverified wikipedia source. When you wanted to send an email, you needed to know every hop skip and jump that you were sending through.

If I wanted to send my mail from Stanford to MIT, I might need to specify that it's got to go through 🚀 NASA AMES, Moffett Field, UC Berkeley, Area 51, and University of Illinois.

I'd do that with a special address called a 💥bangpath💥 that would list the steps we're zipping through:

!ames!moffett!berkeley!illinois!theactualpersonimtryingtogettowtf
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

When the mail hit a node, the forwarder would strip off one bang-segment and send it to the next address.

That sucks, let's build the foundation of social networking on it

The bangpath was a system inside of UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy). In the late 1970s, UUCP was primarily used to send mail, but it's suite of tools included ways to send and receive commands to be run on other computers.

It would be another 10 to 15 years before Tim Berners-Lee started work HTTP.

So when Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis started working on what would become Usenet in 1979, their idea was heavily coupled to UUCP. Even the name "Usenet" was meant to be similar to the Unix user's group "Usenix."

Behind the scenes, Usenet would take the bangpath away from the user. Instead, a user would post to the server they belong to and the servers would then share that information between each other. (EDIT: note that you still would need the bangpath of your server; e.g. hplaps!hpftc!econrad)

It's hard to not be unreasonably optimistic about Usenet

Like many parts of the internet, Usenet was a product of the western world in the middle of the cold war. For many, it was taken for granted that folks living behind the iron curtain would never be involved in any early flame wars.

It was taken for granted that most of the world would end in a much more real flame war.

But 1990, something weird happened. Programmers from Moscow's nuclear energy research institute created their own operating system, managed to access the internet, and quietly registered the Usenet *su domain. src

One year later the Berlin wall fell. And you can still find the post from eunet.politics about it:

Unbelievable!
Incredible!
Historic!
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Actually a lot of historical events can be found on Usenet

Linus Torvalds introduced Linux on Usenet in 1991 with the phrase:

Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on minix? No more all-nighters to get a nifty program working?
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

On net.space, the Challenger explosion was announced:

At 8:39 AM PST today, the shuttle Challenger exploded at about a
minute into the flight.  NASA is searching for survivors now.  It appeared
that the orbiter and external tank exploded completely: television pictures
showed the SRBs moving away from a cloud of debris.  Thus it appears that
the first inflight disaster of the NASA space program has claimed the
lives of six astronauts and NASA's first passenger.

The disaster occured 17 years and 1 day after the Apollo I tragedy.

-- Rick.
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

On mi.jobs, Jeff Bezos seeks Unix Developers for a "well-capitalized Seattle start-up."

Well-capitalized start-up seeks extremely talented C/C++/Unix
developers to help pioneer commerce on the Internet.  You must have
experience designing and building large and complex (yet maintainable)
systems, and you should be able to do so in about one-third the time
that most competent people think possible.  You should have a BS, MS,
or PhD in Computer Science or the equivalent.  Top-notch communication
skills are essential.  Familiarity with web servers and HTML would be
helpful but is not necessary.
Expect talented, motivated, intense, and interesting co-workers.  Must
be willing to relocate to the Seattle area (we will help cover moving
costs).

Your compensation will include meaningful equity ownership.


Send resume and cover letter to Jeff Bezos:

mail:    be...@netcom.com
fax:     206/828-0951
US mail: Cadabra, Inc.
         10704 N.E. 28th St.
         Bellevue, WA  98004

We are an equal opportunity employer.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
"It's easier to invent the future than to predict it."  -- Alan Kay
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

In 1989, we get eye witness accounts of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The situation is Beijing is MUCH WORSE that what is reported by the
media. A friend of mine just made a phone call to her brother at
Beijing Normal Univ. Her brother said that thousands have been killed,
many of them run over by tanks. 
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

I dunno about you all, but I'm starting to think this "internet" thing could be a really big deal moving forward.

Discussion (6)

Collapse
erikpischel profile image
Erik Pischel

Cool article, thanks. I vaguely remember using the Usenet back in the 90s.

One minor correction: Berlin wall fell in 1989.

Collapse
lytecyde profile image
Mik Seljamaa 🇪🇪

Thought I had forgotten the year of the wall and Reagan telling the world "Tear down this wall, Mr Gorbachev!" Nice walk back. I always wanted to be just a few years away from 2020... Haha

Collapse
flaque profile image
Evan Author

Good catch, that was meant to be one year before*

Collapse
ferricoxide profile image
Thomas H Jones II

In 1981, sending an email could take days.

Or so says an unverified wikipedia source.

Primary source, here: sending email could take weeks. The longest I specifically remember was an email that took just shy of three weeks to arrive. This would have been 1989/1990 timeframe. The particular email exchange in question was between me (@PSUVM.PSU.EDU) and a friend going to school at Berkeley.

When you wanted to send an email, you needed to know every hop skip and jump that you were sending through.

Not quite accurate. You simply needed to know the path to the biggest exchangers. Fortunately for me, @PSUVM@ was immediately adjacent to @PSUVAX@ (acutually a Sun 3/80, by that point) and my friend's domain was only two hops off the main Berkley exchanger (@UCBVAX@?).

That said, if you did specify a full path, you might get your email to transit faster than just leaving it up to the main exchangers. Plus, sometimes, you just wanted to see how many nodes you could bounce an email through "just because". Kind of the computer equivalent of filling up your passport with stamps.

If I wanted to send my mail from Stanford to MIT, I might need to specify that it's got to go through 🚀 NASA AMES, Moffett Field, UC Berkeley, Area 51, and University of Illinois.

If you were lucky enough to be on/near a main exchanger, your paths could be short. If, as was more common, you were on some BBS six+ hops away from a main exchanger, your bang-path could be multiple lines long.

Still, UUCP was better than trying to route via FidoNet or its peers. And Being on UUCP or FidoNet was better than trying to route between the two.

Ironically, the best (most timely) way to communicate, at the time was via BITNET RELAY or, later, IRC. Only real problem was those mediums had no "memory". Your communication partner had to be online to get your message. And, at the time (and BITNET was particularly subject to it), network partitioning was common - so, you'd lose your chat-link multiple times in a given chat-session. Similar for MUDing.

Collapse
flaque profile image
Evan Author

Primary source, here: sending email could take weeks. The longest I specifically remember was an email that took just shy of three weeks to arrive. This would have been 1989/1990 timeframe. The particular email exchange in question was between me (@PSUVM.PSU.EDU) and a friend going to school at Berkeley.

I heard that, wanted to put it in the article, but assumed people were exaggerating so I left it out. Did it really take that long? What was the slow-down exactly, just slow processing power and a lot of requests? Or were things not connected? This stuff is traveling at the speed of light effectively right?

Plus, sometimes, you just wanted to see how many nodes you could bounce an email through "just because". Kind of the computer equivalent of filling up your passport with stamps.

That is ridiculously interesting, I never thought about it that way.

Collapse
ferricoxide profile image
Thomas H Jones II

What was the slow-down exactly, just slow processing power and a lot of requests? Or were things not connected?

UUCP was specifically designed to transit emails to/from through systems that weren't connected 24/7. It was a "store and forward" technology (even early Sendmail was designed to be able to operate this way). This was a point in time where connecting was fairly expensive and where links were slow (the Internet's "backbone" in the late 80s was sub-T1 speeds). Many nodes were dial-up based, only connected for a few hours each day, and, depending on how much traffic they needed to exchange at those slow speeds, my not be able to transit it all within the period they were online. Factor in that systems also weren't super reliable - being wholly offline for day or more at a time or might have an outage during their scheduled exchange windows - and it made for a really slow system.

Participating in USENET was a similar experience. It might take weeks for a message to fully propagate.