The History of the Net

Henry Edward Hardy

Master's Thesis 
School of Communications 
Grand Valley State University
Allendale, MI 49401 
v 8.5
September 28, 1993

Html version 0.93 December 14, 1994
ILS 753
Design of Information Systems 
University of Michigan
School of Information and Library Studies 
by Henry Edward Hardy

If we could look in on the future at say, the year 2000, would we see a unity, a federation, or a fragmentation? That is: would we see a single multi-purpose network encompassing all applications and serving everyone? Or a more or less coherent system of intercommunicating networks? Or an incoherent assortment of isolated noncommunicating networks... The middle alternative--the more or less coherent network of networks-- appears to have a fairly high probability and also to be desirable...
[Licklider and Vezza 1978, p. 1342]


"So where is the agora for the global community? The answer has to be, On the net."
--Brenda Laurel, Interval Research Corporation, quoted in Leslie [1993], p 34.

Why write a history of the Net? It's not enough to say merely that it's never been done.

The Net is a unique creation of human intelligence.

The Net is the first intelligent artificial organism.

The Net represents the growth of a new society within the old.

The Net represents a new model of governance.

The Net represents a threat to civil liberties.

The Net is the greatest free marketplace of ideas that has ever existed.

The Net is in imminent danger of extinction.

The Net is immortal.

What Is "The Net?"

"The Net" is a term used by those who are on the Net to refer to it. It is therefor hard to define outside of its own terms of reference. John Quarterman, calls the Net "The Matrix" in his book "The Matrix" [1990]. Tracy LaQuey [1993] says that:
The Matrix is sometimes called the Net by citizens of all networks. This term is ambiguous because it doesn't refer to any one network, but works well in referring to the overall worldwide situation. If you hear someone say he's "on the Net," it probably means he can be contacted by email."
[LaQuey, 1993:37-38]

This inclusive definition of the Net would encompass not only the Internet, Usenet and their kin but would also include users of computer bulletin boards (BBSs), commercial services such as America Online, the Source, Genie, the Well, Prodigy, and Compuserve, and telephone-based teletext services such as the French Minitel.

However, for purposes of the present work a narrower definition of the Net will permit a more focused approach. This work therefore concentrates primarily on the development of packet-switched networks such as ARPANET and the Internet and store-and-forward networks such as BITNET and Usenet. These networks form a particular culture. In many cases there is a substantial overlap among those who participate in the various networks that comprise the Net.

The people of the Net are self-defined as such, like the members of any other culture. In its structure, we may see the basis for a new form of "electronic democracy."

Contrary to the popular belief that computers and electronic communications mean the death of the written word, computer mediated communication systems represent its resurgence and transformation. The written culture of the Net is much like an oral culture in the immediacy of communication, and in the role of tradition and traditional gatekeepers in the place of hierarchical formal authority structures. The Net is in a state much like a tribal society in many ways, with complex but often subtle structures of influence and self-regulation.

There is much to be learned from the Net by historians, information theorists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, cyberneticians, and those in many other disciplines. The Net is an example of a non-teleological, self- organizing system that combines human and machine communication, reasoning, and associative capabilities.

The Net, if conceived of as a sort of mental space, or cyberspace, is regarded by many as a "last frontier." The relatively free access to the Net, huge resources, and system of total prestation [Mauss, 1967] make the Net a nation of first allegiance for many of its members.

In the current tremendous expansion of the Net we have to opportunity to watch and study the growth of a fantastically huge new industry, on a scale similar to the building of the public highway systems, postal systems, telephone, railroad, and electrical infrastructure. To understand the current state of the Net and formulate ideas about its future we must have a clear understanding about its past.

This is challenging because nothing on the Net has ever been cast in stone. Things have always changed, sometimes gradually and sometimes catastrophically, but have never remained static. Most major changes have been attended with great controversy, controversies which never entirely die down. Further, the lack of any central authority or policy making bodies in the traditional sense makes any authoritative statement about the Net subject to immediate qualification and revision.

So writing about the Net is important because:

Millions of people participate in the Net.

The development of laws and regulation of the Net will shape the degree of liberty enjoyed by all.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake in the struggle over commercialization.

Understanding the history of the Net helps us to understand the past, present and future of human culture.

Why A "History" of the Net?

Most books and articles about the Net are "how to" works aimed at novices. Many thousands of technical papers, proposals, conference presentations, meeting notes, RFC's (Request For Comment,) technical specifications and the like have been written. A few works have treated the Net from the standpoint of sociology, psychology, library studies or learning behavior. Recently, an increasing number of researchers in the field of communications have begun to study the Net as well.

Interestingly, it seems that most of the material treating the Net from the historical perspective has come from those on the Net itself. Much interesting material has been generated on Usenet and BITNET through groups such as alt.folklore.computers and ipct-l. In addition, there are an increasing number of electronic journals which have made important contributions, such as the Amateur Computerist, the Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture and Computer Underground Digest.

However, the study of the Net is a field which by and large remains undiscovered territory for the historian. The natural scientists who study Man yesterday, today and tomorrow are the historian and archaeologist, the anthropologist, and the futurist respectively; the Net should be of supreme interest to each and all of them. The methods of statistical, social and physical sciences are most suited to an atomistic world in which events are predicable and repeatable. The natural scientist such as the astronomer or the geologist on the other hand might concern herself with a quasar or a volcanic explosion; such events are not at this stage of our culture predicable or able to be reproduced under laboratory conditions, but are nonetheless of great interest to the natural scientist.

In the view of the statistical, deconstructivist social scientist who seeks to ape the physical sciences, the Net may not be much good to study: it is a data point of one. There has never been a Net like this in human culture. But it is equally a mistake to think that the changes brought about through the Net are entirely unprecedented. As Innis [1949] noted, changes in communications technology have often accompanied great social changes. We have now a unique opportunity -- to study a culture in its infancy. We know only that we cannot say for certain what the future of the Net may be. But that it is of tremendous importance to the future history of humanity cannot be disputed. Changes in computer mediated communication have now gone beyond doing the same old thing the same old way only faster and better; the machines are now rewriting the software of Man.

As an anthropologist and historian I have often mourned the loss of so many wonderful languages and cultures in our lifetime. But here is a new language and a new culture growing within the shell of an old. As scientists and as humanists we may this time be able to do more than chronicle the loss of another ancient and irreplaceable culture. We may also study the emergence of the new culture which with tolerance and understanding may in time replace our own. Capitalism, nations, laws, governments -- all of these things which seem so certain a part of our life are called into question by the Net.

Although the Net can really be said to have begun in the late 1960s, and thus within the lifetime of many of its citizens, its early history has been obscured by the erasure of much that it once recorded and the obsolescence of the technologies and software which once made it go. The history of the Net has also been adumbrated with many legends and myths which might both frustrate the literal minded historian and at the same time delight the anthropologist and folklorist.

A comprehensive history of the Net remains to be written. This essay can only show the path where others may later follow. Since we wish to illumine some general historical truths and trends, and since we wish to as much as possible avoid deluging the reader with jargon which may seem to resemble a foreign tongue (as indeed it is becoming), we shall limit our discussion to a few of the myriad networks that comprise the Net. Readers who find themselves still completely adrift in unfamiliar seas may wish to consult the several excellent books for new users of the Net, such as Krol's "The whole Internet user's guide and catalog" [1992] or LaQuey's "The Internet companion." [1993]

From Address Space to Cyberspace

The history of the Net begins in the 1960s with the establishment of the packet-switched networks. Packet-switching is a method of fragmenting messages into sub-parts called packets, routing them to their destinations, and reassembling them. Packetizing information has several advantages. It facilitates allowing several users to share the same connection by breaking up the data into discrete units which can be routed separately. Because no transmission medium is 100% reliable, packet-switching allows one "bad" packet to be re-sent while other "good" packets are uninterrupted in their transmission.

Packets may carry information about themselves, where they have been and where they are going. In addition, packets may be compressed for speed and size advantages or encrypted for security. Most packets carry some sort of internal check for consistency that helps to weed out bad packets. Packetizing data has advantages in overcoming certain inherent bandwidth and speed constraints, particularly in older network and modem-based communication.

Packet-switching procedures, or algorithms, have a close analogue in the postal encoding and sorting routines which have evolved over the centuries. Methods of encoding, packetizing, transmitting, and decoding information have had a great implication for national security and commerce for thousands of years. Many scholars have noted that the greatness of Rome was founded on its road system. What has not often been noted is that the roads were only the transmission layer of the Roman data system. Equally important in the function of the Roman postal system were the postal switching stations, milestones, and published itineraries. The Romans, like the United States, in their Imperial period sought to make their "Net" and encryption procedures state secrets. The postal agents, or "agents in rebus," became the most feared and powerful secret police organization in Rome in the third and fourth centuries AD. We may ask ourselves what kind of society we will build if we enable our own secret services and national security agencies to control cryptography and access to the Net.

The development of packet-switched networks has some precedent in the earlier timesharing systems operated by IBM and other companies and universities. Of particular relevance were the services offered in the 1960s by GE and Tymeshare which allowed remote dial-in access to computers. One difference between these early systems, which connected terminals to remote hosts, and packet-switched networks is that timesharing networks generally offered a master/slave relationship (or as we now say "client/server") whereas packet-switched networks, although hierarchical in structure, were more essentially peer-to-peer networks. This represented a revolution in thinking about computers that helped ultimately to spell the doom of the large centralized timesharing systems except for certain specific tasks. It is safe to say that most computer users today never need to log in to a mainframe. Scientific modelling and large database applications remain two notable exceptions.

But in general, the picture of computing today is much more democratic than in the 1960s. Peer-to-peer systems had a lot to do with this. No longer was one machine in a transaction always dumb and a single computer the only accessible source of data. The advent of personal computers and 1200 baud modems in the mid- 1970s accelerated the trend towards a decentralized and anarchic model of computer mediated communication networks.

Perhaps the first packet-switching network operated at the National Physical Laboratories in the UK beginning in 1968. Another early packet-switching experiment conducted by the Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques in 1968-1970. Development of a packet-switched network began in the US in 1968, but it was not until 1969 that this technology was delivered to the US Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The ARPANET used NCP, Network Control Protocol as its transmission protocol from 1969 to 1982, when NCP was replaced with the now-widespread TCP/IP. [Quarterman 1990:141,143; LaQuey 1990:194].

Arpanet to Internet

An "internet" is a connected set of networks, such as those using Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP). When used in conjunction, this suite of protocols is referred to as TCP/IP. "The Internet" usually refers to the connected TCP/IP internets. Networks based on other systems, such as OSI might also be considered internets and part of the Internet. Often this definition is expanded to include all the other networks which have connections to the Internet, such as BITNET, Janet and Usenet.

Ronda Hauben [1993a] cites the 1962 Rand Corporation report "On Distributed Communications" by Paul Baran:

Baran's research, done under a grant from the U.S. Air Force, discusses how the U.S. military could protect its communications systems from serious attack. He outlines the principle of "redundancy of connectivity" and explores various models of forming communications systems and evaluating their vulnerability.
The report proposes a communications system where there would be no obvious central command and control point, but all surviving points would be able to re-establish contact in the event of an attack on any one point. Thus damage to a part would not destroy the whole and its effect on the whole would be minimized.
One of his recommendations is for a national public utility to transport computer data, much in the way the telephone system transports voice data. "Is it time now to start thinking about a new and possibly non-existent public utility," Baran asks, "a common user digital data communication plant designed specifically for the transmission of digital data among a large set of subscribers?"
[Hauben, 1993a]

Hauben (1993a) says that the initial plan for the ARPANET was distributed at the October 1967 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Symposium on Operating Principles in Gatlingberg, Tennessee. The initial design called for networking four sites.

The first ARPANET Information Message Processor (IMP) was installed at UCLA on September 1, 1969. Hauben notes that these IMP's, Honeywell 516's, had only 12 K of memory although they were considered to be powerful minicomputers of their time. Additional nodes were soon added at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), and the University of Utah. Utah was the first site to enable remote logging in from other sites. [Ellison, 1993]

All of these sites are still active on the Net as of August 1993, although the former ARPA National Information Center Center (SRI-NIC.ARPA or is now and the new MILNET Defense Data Network Information Center ( is located in Virginia. [Johnson, 1993]

The Internet, the "Network of Networks," had its origin in 1972. Hauben [1993a] says:

In October 1972, the First International Conference on Computer Communications was held in Washington, D.C. A public demonstration of the ARPANET was given setting up an actual node with 40 machines. Representatives from projects around the world including Canada, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Great Britain and the U.S. discussed the need to begin work on establishing agreed upon protocols. The InterNetwork Working Group (INWG) was created to begin discussions for such a common protocol and Vinton Cerf, who was involved with UCLA Arpanet was chosen as the first Chairman. The vision proposed for the architectural principles for an international interconnection of networks was "a mess of independent, autonomous networks interconnected by gateways, just as independent circuits of ARPANET are interconnected by IMPs."
[Hauben, 1993a]

The popularity of electronic mail on the early ARPANET was unanticipated by its designers. Licklider and Vezza (1978) noted that:

One of the advantages of the message system over letter mail was that, in an ARPANET message, one could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much more like the telephone. Indeed, tolerance for informality and imperfect typing was even more evident when two users of the ARPANET linked their consoles together and typed back and forth in an alphanumeric conversation. Among the advantages of the network message services over the telephone were the fact that one could proceed immediately to the point without having to engage in small talk first, that the message services produced a preservable record, and that the sender and receiver did not have to be available at the same time.
[Licklider and Vezza, 1978]

In 1983, the ARPANET was split into ARPANET and MILNET. The later was integrated into the Defense Data Network, created in 1982. ARPANET was taken out of service in 1990. ARPANET's role as network backbone was taken over by NSFNET which may in time be in turn be supplanted by the National Research and Educational Network (NREN).

ARPANET was very important in the development of the Net. In its time it was the largest, fastest, and most populated part of the Net. Its initial structure was influenced by the fact that it was intended to form part of the central command and control structure for the US armed forces during the height of the Cold War. As such, it was designed to be able to survive a nuclear attack. This in turn influenced the decentralized and peer-to-peer structure of the Net.

The Internet. The Internet we make so much of today -- the global Internet which has helped scholars so much, where free speech is flourishing as never before in history -- the Internet was a Cold War military project. It was designed for purposes of military communication in a United States devastated by a Soviet nuclear strike. Originally, the Internet was a post-apocalypse command grid.
And look at it now. No one really planned it this way. Its users made the Internet that way, because they had the courage to use the network to support their own values, to bend the technology to their own purposes. To serve their own liberty. Their own convenience, their own amusement, even their own idle pleasure. When I look at the Internet -- that paragon of cyberspace today -- I see something astounding and delightful. It's as if some grim fallout shelter had burst open and a full-scale Mardi Gras parade had come out.
[Sterling, 1993]

Store-And-Forward Networks: The Poor Man's Internets

While ARPANET was in the early stages of its evolution, another technology was influencing the growth of the Net. Store-and-forward networks used the technology of electronic mail systems and extended them to what we now call conferencing. A conference in this sense is somewhere in between broadcasting (one-way, one-to-many) and electronic mail (two-way, one-to-one.) Conferencing is two-way and one-to-many.

In the 1970s and early 1980s another kind of network technology began to come to the fore. These were the early store-and-forward networks such as BITNET and Usenet.

Like many other aspects of computer mediated communication, interactive conferencing as a concept predates computer technology. Quarterman [1990] credits Vannevar Bush for proposing the first conferencing system in his 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, "As we may think" [Bush, 1945].

From 1945 to 1970, several models of conferencing for face- to-face or regular mail were developed. One such influential model is the "Delphi" method [Quarteman 1990].

The first online Delphi conferencing system was initiated in 1970. The first dedicated hardware and software specifically dedicated to conferencing, EMISARI, was implemented in 1971. However, computer and teletext conferencing systems of the 1970s tended to be slow and unwieldy, and were therefore used primarily in structured environments for particular tasks. This was to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the emergence of economical, user-created networks such as Usenet, BITNET and Fidonet [Quarterman 1990].

Oh, Say can UUCP?

The unix-to-unix-copy protocol, or UUCP, was created in 1976 by Mike Lesk at AT&T Bell Labs as part of a research project. The product was a success within AT&T, and an improved version by Lesk, David Notiwitz, and Greg Chesson was released in 1977 with UNIX version 7. Several networks evolved to take advantage of this facility for sending and receiving mail, conferencing, and remote login and file transfers. [O'Reilly and Todino, 1990]

One such early network was THEORYNET. Begun by Lawrence Landweber, Richard DeMillo, and Richard Lipton at the University of Wisconsin in 1977, THEORYNET provided email facilities for over 100 computer science researchers. In May 1979, Landweber convened a two day meeting of representatives from DARPA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and computer scientists from several universities. The purpose of the meeting was "to establish the feasibility of establishing a Computer Science Department research computer network." This meeting led to the eventual establishment of the Computer Science Research Network (CSNET) [Comer, 1983].

CSNET was established for two reasons. On the one hand, UUCP, modems, and the existing telephone system provided a ready-made method of data transport. On the other hand, large computing facilities such as the University of Wisconsin which were not part of the ARPANET were increasingly concerned that the advantages of linked computer systems at university ARPANET sites gave those sites a substantial advantage in research and faculty and student recruitment.

A series of proposals to the NSF was generated and revised. The earliest designs for CSNET envisioned it as a stand-alone network. During this period of revisions the idea of a gateway to the ARPANET was added to the plan.

In summer 1980, DARPA scientist Vinton Cerf proposed a plan for an inter-network connection between CSNET and the ARPANET. This plan called for CSNET to be a logical network composed of several physical networks. Communications between CSNET and ARPANET would be arranged so as to be transparent, that is, services on either network would be accessed through a set of protocols that would be the same from the standpoint of the user regardless of what network the user or service was on.

A set of communications protocols developed by DARPA, called TCP/IP would be used to route information between the networks. Connections between the networks would be through a gateway called the VAN, or Value Added Network. The implementation of this inter-network gateway and the important decision to make TCP/IP available without charge mark the foundation of what later became known as "the Internet."

At the August 1980 CSNET planning group meeting, several goals were adopted: all researchers should have access to CSNET, the cost for member institutions should be graduated according to the volume and level of service, CSNET should eventually become financially self-sufficient, and the implementation of the project should cost less than 5 million dollars and take less than five years. [Comer, 1983]

Phase I of the implementation plan for CSNET, providing dialup access to email, was completed by July, 1982. Phase II, completed in early late 1983, included the implementation of the first nameserver at UW. This was the forerunner of Domain Name Service now widely used on TCP/IP networks. The Domain Name Service approach facilitates the transport of mail in that the user or user's host computer no longer need to know the exact path to the recipient's site. Information about mail routing can be generated by consulting the central database at the Domain Nameserver. By about 1990 this approach supplanted the older unix way, which was to have all information about known hosts on each machine in a file called /etc/hosts.

In the meantime, another network making use of UUCP was already up and running.


One important early distributed conferencing systems is the Unix User Network, or Usenet. Usenet implemented the UUCP, or Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol, to transport news and views. It is estimated that there are more than ten million user accounts on computers which are part of Usenet, and that more than 2.5 million people read Usenet in a given month [Reid, 1993].

Usenet is an example of a client-server (client-host) architecture. A user connects to a machine which in turn connects to another machine which has stored the Usenet postings for the past few days, weeks, or hours. The users typically look at the headings of postings in the newsgroups of interest to them. The user may issue a command requesting the full text of a particular posting (article). The client machine in turn requests the particular article to be forwarded from the host machine. If the article is unavailable (expired, no longer stored, or cancelled by its poster) then a message, "article unavailable," is transmitted back to the user. Otherwise, the full text of the requested posting should appear on the user's terminal. The user may then read or store the article, or reply through electronic mail, post a follow-up article or start a new subject heading with a new posting.

Usenet proper is generally considered to have begun in 1979 as a series of shell scripts written by University of North Carolina (UNC) graduate student Steve Bellovin in order to automate and facilitate UUCP communication between UNC and Duke University. These scripts were rewritten and extended in a program written in the computer language "C" by Steve Daniel and Tom Truscott. This version is generally referred to as the "A" release of news.

News articles are separated into divisions called newsgroups. Each division is supposed to limit itself to a single topic, and the name of the group is supposed to give you some idea as to the content of the group.These groups are then organized into hierarchies of related topics. Usenet Network News started out with just two hierarchies, mod and net. The mod hierarchy had those groups that had a person as the moderator to edit and control the information. The net hierarchy handled all other groups. With the release of B News and its ability to have any single group be moderated or open, the great renaming was undertaken.
[Weinstein, 1992]

Matt Glickman, a high school student, and Mark Horton, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley wrote the "B" version of news in 1981. A series of releases numbered from 2.1 to 2.10.2 appeared between 1982 and 1984. These were authored first by Horton and later by Rick Adams of the Center for Seismic Studies (now at Uunet) [Livingston, 1988c].

In the early days of Usenet, some irrational routing occurred because of bureaucratic inertia at some of the sites and because of the ad-hoc way in which the early Usenet evolved:

 >From James Ellis Tue Oct 16 08:43 PDT 1990 [...]

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

        >From Amanda Walker Tue Oct 16 09:11 PDT 1990
        aw> Indeed.  I suspect that there are any number of examples
                of this,
        aw> but the most egregious in my experience was at CWRU. 
                The ECMP
        aw> department had a VAX 11/780 on Usenet ("cwruecmp"), and
                the campus
        aw> computer center had a DEC-20 in the room next door.  The
        aw> were separated by a grand total of about 30 feet and a
                piece of
        aw> wallboard, but the computer center was not at all
                interested in
        aw> "catering" to "those CS types" by stringing an RS-232
                line between
        aw> them.  So, it was possible to send mail between them,
                but only by
        aw> sending via a route resembling:
        aw>     crwuecmp => decvax => ucbvax (UUCP)
        aw>     ucbvax => columbia (CU20A, I think) (ARPANET)
        aw>     columbia => cmu-cs-c => cwru20 (CCnet)
        aw> Yup, that's three networks, and two coasts just to get
                through a
        aw> piece of sheetrock :-).  Took about a week, too.

        [Truscott, 1993]

The "Great Renaming"

In 1986-87, Usenet underwent a thoroughgoing shakeup and reorganization which has come to be known as the "Great Renaming." At its inception, Usenet had only top-level hierarchies, mod and net. This was later expanded by the addition of the "fa" groups as well as some domains with only local distribution. When a complete reorganization of Usenet was proposed, a massive and now-legendary "flame war" (online discussion/argument) commenced.
The most significant flame war of Usenet history was over the "Great Renaming" when the seven main hierarchies {comp,misc,news,rec,sci,soc,talk} were created and the old groups {net,fa,mod} were all moved around. There was great gnashing of teeth as groups were sorted and tossed around and relegated to their polities.
[Woodbury, 1992]

The Great (or Grand) Renaming started July 1986 and ended in March 1987, according to a posting from Gene Spafford. [Truscott, 1993] One reason for the renaming was the increasing number of groups made such a reorganization of the highest level domains advantageous for organizational reasons. Another reason was to put controversial groups in the "talk" domain which was added towards the end of the Renaming, so that it would be easier for administrators who wished to remove such groups from their newsfeed to do so. This was considered more desirable and practical than attempting to eliminate controversial newsgroups. [Truscott, 1993]

The original Usenet backbone was first created by Gene Spafford in 1983. The intent was to rationalize the retransmission of Usenet news. The backbone was formalized following the Great Renaming in 1986-1987 by Spafford:

        >From Gene Spafford Thu Oct 11 20:05 PDT 1990

        gs> Eventually, by the time of the great renaming after the
                1986 Usenix
        gs> conference, I formalized the backbone in a regular
                posting with a
        gs> map and a description of what constituted a backbone site
                --- good
        gs> connectivity, carrying the mainstream groups, and a
                commitment to
        gs> stable news and mail software.  These were the same
                things I had
        gs> encouraged earlier on, or the reasons I had put people
                on the
        gs> mailing list.

        [Truscott, 1993]
The demise of the original backbone was accompanied by several changes in Usenet. An increasing percentage of Usenet traffic was moving over ARPANET connections. This led to the widespread replacement of UUCP by NNTP (Net News Transfer Protocol, a method of transmitting Usenet news on TCP/IP connections). And rapid growth in the number of sites was accompanied by increasing pressure for democratization (or "anarchization") of the newsgroup creation procedure.

The "Breaking Of The Backbone Cabal"

The "Breaking of the Backbone Cabal" occurred when administrators of the Usenet backbone declined to carry newsgroups dealing with recreational sex and drugs. Usenet participants devised communications paths which avoided the ARPANET and the alt hierarchy was born:
But the most profound change to the net occurred when Richard Sexton proposed "" (followed closely by rec.drugs) and the group "passed" its "vote" but the Backbone Cabal decreed that they would NOT carry the group or create the group on the "backbone" machines. Almost immediately, the "alt" distribution was set up, using alternative routes that were "separate" from the backbone (and theoretically avoided traversing the ARPANET)., alt.drugs were the first groups created, and the next day, Brian Kantor issued the newgroup for alt.rock-n-roll (for aesthetic purposes, said he!) Shortly thereafter, (within about 5 months), the Backbone Cabal "officially" abdicated (due to some dissension in the ranks over the control of routing and newgroup guidelines) after installing the "Holey Guidelines" and "Gene Spafford" as the Tsar. FOllowing the abdication of the Backbone Cabal oligarchy, Usenet was proclaimed to be the worlds foremost example of a working cooperative "anarchy" and it has remained so ever since.
[Wooodbury, 1992]

However, it was Brian Reid, not Brian Kantor, who participated in the creation of the alternet:

        The famous barbecue at which the alt net was created was held at 
        G.T.'s Sunset Barbecue in Mountain View California on May 7, 
        1987. John Gilmore and I were both unhappy with the 
        decisionmaking process of the "ordinary" net. John was 
        distressed because they wouldn't create rec.drugs, and I was 
        distressed because they wanted to force me to adopt the name 
        "" for my recipe newsgroup. Gordon Moffett of 
        Amdahl also sat with us. He had no specific beef or goal, but he 
        wanted to help. John's home computer was "hoptoad"; my home      
        computer was "mejac". We set up a link between us, and each of 
        us set up a link to amdahl, and we vowed to pass all alt traffic 
        to each other and to nurse the net along. In those days one sent 
        out numerous newgroup messages in the hopes that one would 
        "take"; by the end of May the groups alt.test, alt.config, 
        alt.drugs, and alt.gourmand were active. At the time I also 
        managed "decwrl", so I quietly added "alt" to the list of groups 
        that it carried.

        Nearly a year later, there was a vote taken about "" and 
        although it passed, Gene Spafford refused to create it. I 
        therefore created "" on April 3, 1988, and sent the 
        following message to the USENET "backbone" cabal:

            From: (Brian Reid)
            Message-Id: <>
            Date:  3 Apr 1988 1754-PST (Sunday)
            Subject: Re: final results
            In-Reply-To: Gene Spafford  / Sun, 03 Apr 
        88 18:22:36 EST.
            To end the suspense, I have just created
            That meant that the alt network now carried and 
            alt.drugs. It was therefore artistically necessary to create 
            alt.rock-n-roll, which I have also done. I have no idea what 
            sort of traffic it will carry. If the bizzarroids take it
            over I will rmgroup it or moderate it; otherwise I will let 
            it be.
    Brian Reid
    T5 (5th thoracic)

        "T5" is the name of a vertebra (the 5th thoracic vertebra). This 
        was my attempt to remind these people that I was an official 
        voting member of the backbone.

        At the time I sent that message I didn't yet realize that alt 
        groups were immortal and couldn't be killed by anyone. In 
        retrospect, this is the joy of the alt network: you create a 
        group, and nobody can kill it. It can only die, when people stop 
        reading it. No artificial death, only natural death.

        I don't wish to offer an opinion about how the net should be 
        run; that's like offering an opinion about how salamanders 
        should grow: nobody has any control over it, regardless of what 
        opinions they might have.

        [Reid, 1993b]
It must be noted that as revolutions go, the "Breaking of the Backbone Cabal" was a gentle revolt, for although a number of harsh words were exchanged, at the end of the day, the old "father of the Backbone," Gene Spafford, was installed as the new group creation "Tsar." It is typical of the culture of the Net that those who have been on the Net the longest have the highest social status, regardless of the popularity of their views. Since there is no "official" written history, most of what is known about the past is in the minds and postings of these "old ones."

Henry Spencer of the University of Toronto created the "C," version of news in 1988-1989. Usenet continues to evolve rapidly. One important development in the early 1990s has been the proliferation of client newsreader programs such as nn, trn, and tin, which provide a full-screen interface for news and facilitate following and replying to ongoing conversations, or "threads."

It is interesting to note that changes in the social structure of Usenet were traceable to changes in the software. Although this was almost certainly unintentional, the software used on the Net had already begun to redetermine human social structures and methods of self-governance. We have noted how the need for the ARPANET to be able to survive a limited nuclear exchange led to its dispersal of administrative functions, multiple connections, and in turn to its anarchic social and self-regulatory structure. The closed nature of the ARPANET led in turn to the development of several networks such as Usenet, BITNET and Fidonet which used off-the-shelf technology in new and unforeseen ways to emulate what was going on the ARPANET. Indeed, these networks might be called the "poor man's Internets."

So changes in technology are driving changes in social structure, and the wishes of the people of the Net are reflected in new self-generated software which in turn leads to more changes. I will return presently to Usenet and its growth as it has been of crucial importance to the emergence of the Net as a self-determinate and independent culture.

Birth of the BITNET

Two years after Usenet began in North Carolina, another important store-and-forward network came into being. BITNET, the "Because It's Time NETwork," was started as a cooperative network at the City University of New York (CUNY).

BITNET uses electronic mail systems and mechanism called a "listserv" to distribute information. There are more than 4,000 discussion subject areas provided by BITNET or BITNET-style listservs. Sending a message to a BITNET list results in that message being replicated and sent to all of the subscribers of that list. Persons may subscribe or unsubscribe to a list automatically by sending a message to a particular address. The user would subscribe by sending an email message to listserv@host, with a text body of "subscribe ".

BITNET is administered today by the BITNET Network Information Center, or BITNIC, under the auspices of EDUCOM. Unlike Usenet and the Internet, BITNET traffic and membership peaked in 1990 and remains stable today. BITNET addresses have the form userxxxx@sitename. BITNET addressing and mail delivery systems are different from the domain-style addressing of Internet and modern UUCP addresses and will probably eventually be replaced.

Some lists are open, or unmoderated, while the membership of other, moderated, lists may be administrated by one or more moderators who must approve postings before they are "exploded" or mailed out. This parallels the existence of moderated and unmoderated newsgroups on Usenet. However, the culture of BITNET is somewhat more conservative than that of Usenet in regard what is and is not permitted on moderated lists. This may be because BITNET has a formal administrative structure, or may be because of different cultural development, or both.

Network etiquette, or "Netiquette," is different in the world of BITNET than on the Internet or Usenet. Usenet traditionally has been a very open free-speech forum. Arguments, and "flaming" are not only tolerated, but form an important part of the social and administrative tradition of Usenet. A "flame" is a posting harshly criticizing a posting or the poster. A "flame war" is a continuing argument in which the noise-to-signal (in the sense of getting more and more emotional and less and less informative) ratio gets progressively higher and higher before dying out. In the opinion of this author, flame wars are the most important means of social constraint on the Usenet system. In the absence of any central administration or much formal structure, flame wars provide a democratic way to air out differences. Even minor shifts in policy or procedure are likely to produce a flame war (as is just one person who had a bad day).

When a flame war begins, lurkers (people who read but never post) and newbies (new users) run for cover. Personal aspersions, outrageous exaggerations, and overheated rhetoric are the order of the day (or week, or month). A person's past transgressions (real or imagined), personal habits and proclivities (real or imagined) and unsupported claims of personal privilege or authority seem to rule the day, for a time. Eventually the source of irritation is removed, removes themselves, cooler heads prevail, or everyone just gets sick of it and moves on to another subject.

By contrast, such conduct is discouraged on BITNET. If a flame war begins, the cry of "take it to email" may be raised until order is restored. In moderated groups, flame wars may be permitted, but usually must retain some attitude of civility and some relevance to the original subject. In Usenet, a topic or thread may drift into completely unrelated fields. This is facilitated by posting a particular message to several groups, or "crossposting." Because of the relatively more sophisticated interface of Usenet, it is generally more convenient to crosspost on Usenet than on BITNET.

On the other hand, BITNET is available to anyone with email capability connected to the Net, whereas to read most Usenet groups requires access to a server and special client software. These technological characteristics are both a product of the culture which engendered them and at the same time determinators of the social characteristics of the virtual communities which grow up around them [Rheingold, 1992].

In the early 1980s, both the Internet and USENET underwent considerable reorganizations. At about the same time, a new store-and-forward network was developing.

See Fido Run

The invention of the first computer bulletin board system, or BBS, is commonly credited to Ward Christianson in 1977-1978. Christianson was the author of the Xmodem file transfer protocol, which was in itself a singular milestone in the history of the Net as the first widely available file transfer method for personal computers. Christianson and Randy Suess started a dial-in BBS called RCPM (for "Remote CP/M", an operating system) in 1978 in Chicago [Richard 1993]. Some scholars point to the remote networking facilities established in 1972 at MIT, or the establishment of a "pirate" phone phreak board in New York City in 1975, or to the PLATO notes system at the University of Illinois, also established in 1975, as precedents [DelPapa, 1993].

The technology for BBSes had existed for many decades, since the introduction of automatic telegraphy in the early part of this century. The essential changes which made BBSes possible were first of all, the growing awareness of the potential of the computer as a communications tool fostered by ARPANET, and second, the availability for the first time in the late 1970s, of personal computers.

One important early BBS was Fido BBS in San Francisco, CA. The FidoBBS software was authored by Tom Jennings, the sysop of FidoBBS, in late 1983. By late 1984 several dozen sites were running the FidoBBS software. In June 1984, Jennings released the Fidonet software. This software implemented a packet-based, store-and-forward networking technology which allowed FidoBBS users to send mail and participate in discussions much like Usenet or BITNET. Unlike Usenet or BITNET, Fidonet ran on IBM PC's and compatables running DOS 2.0 and higher. This meant that anyone with a personal computer and a modem could be system operator (sysop) of his/her own computer communications system, or "node."

In 1986, there was a schism in Fidonet which was in some ways parallel to the "Breaking of the Backbone Cabal" on Usenet. At this time, there were thousands of FidoNet systems throughout Europe and North America.

Around 1986 the fidonet split into various splinter groups due to the incorporation of "Fidonet". Many people felt that their network had been stolen.
[Porter, 1993]

Some renegade groups continued to use the Fidonet software without incorporating themselves into the "authorized" structure. In 1987, the release of the uupc software for MS-DOS machines allowed the connection of Fidonet and Usenet. Today many Usenet newsgroups are echoed onto Fidonet. However, Fido groups seldom find their way back onto Usenet. For this reason, Fidonet is considered by some to be on the borders of the Net. [Birdsall 1993]

As of June, 1993, there were 24,800 Fidonet nodes throughout the world. It is estimated that Fidonet serves 1.56 million users. The number of Fidonet nodes is currently growing at a rate of 40% annually. [Presno, 1993]

Virtual Communities, Virtual Culture

There is a growing recognition by authors and scholars that the Net is not merely an assemblage of hardware linked together with cables and operated by software. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Net is the new human culture which is growing up within its premises. People on the Net act differently than they would if they were to meet FTF (face to face.) In fact, the Net contains within it not merely one new human culture, but many. Different networks using different technologies have evolved different sub-cultures. Only the most foresighted scholars could have anticipated even part of the magnificent and peculiar structure which has been erected upon the modest foundations the origins of which have been outlined here.

In this paper we have described a few salient aspects of the history of a few networks: ARPANET, BITNET, CSNET, the Internet, and Fidonet. Presno [1993] lists 93 networks and services, and even this is but an eclectic selection. The Internet itself is a collection of more than 13,170 regional, national, and international networks [MERIT 1993g]. The following chart shows the exponential growth in the number of host computers on the Internet since August, 1981:

                      Date            Hosts 
                      08/81             213 
                      08/83             562 
                      10/85           1,961 
                      12/87          28,174 
                      10/89         159,000 
                      10/90         313,000 
                      10/91         617,000 
                      10/92       1,136,000 
                      07/93       1,776,000

        [MERIT 1993a]
There are hundreds of servers such as Internet Relay Chat and multi user domains such as MUDS, MOO's, MUSE's etc. each of which serves hundreds or even thousands of users [Bartle, 1990; Reid, 1991; Hardy, 1992; Rheingold, 1992, 1993; Leslie 1993].

There are now thousands of BBSes throughout the world, and hundreds of Internet accessible services ranging from weather information to anonymous posting services (like an old-fashioned maildrop). There are thousands of information servers for services like WAIS, WWW, Gopher, Archie, Prospero, and others. With the advent of gigabit networks, real-time interactive video and virtual reality are only years or even months away from general availability. All of this too is part of the Net.

The strength of the Net as a political culture is almost unappreciated by the world's governments. During the 1991 coup in the former USSR, and during the Tiananmen conflict, the Net was an invaluable conduit for news and information [LaQuey 1993: 4-5, 10].

The Net also stayed up during the 1989 San Francisco quake, when phones and other services become unavailable. The legacy of the Cold-War command and control ARPANET is that the Net is today invincible. Even if all fiber-optic and telephone lines in the world were to fail at once, the Net would continue to survive thanks to the tens of thousands of packet radio operators and the Russian and American amateur packet satellites.

As an anthropologist, I have been personally aggrieved by the genocide and/or assimilation of the last isolated and "pristine" cultures on Earth. But the people of the Net present the anthropologist, folklorist, historian, sociologist and systems theorist with a completely unique opportunity: to study a culture of tens of millions of people which is today only less than 30 years old. Astonishingly little of the early history of the Net is documented. But while this history is still within living memory we can capture the genesis of an event which will shape the world in as yet unforeseen ways: the birth of a new world culture called the Net.


I wish to take this opportunity to thank first and foremost the members of my committee: Prof. Alexander Nesterenko, Prof. Joseph Helgert, and Ronald Suarez, Ph.D. Without their help and encouragement this paper would not have been written (or ever finished!).

I owe another very large debt of gratitude to the members of hh-readers-l: Tony Audas, Greg Boynton, Mars DeRitis, Rhana Jacot, Bruce Jones, Randym Jones, and Pat Preston. They have provided me with many documents and ideas, wonderful proofreading, encouragement, and some much-needed corrections and criticism.

I would also like to thank Jon Zeeff, Jay Rouman, the University of Michigan Computer Club ( for the superb facilities for education and research they have made available.

Thanks are also due to the following for the use of facilities: Grand Valley State University (GVSU) School of Communications -- Deb Singer; GVSU Computer-Assisted Writing Laboratory -- Prof. Ron Dwelle; GVSU Next Lab -- Prof. Carl Erickson; Denver University Nyx Public Access Unix ( -- Prof. Andrew Burt; wybbs -- Daniel Wynalda; free public dialin facilities -- MERIT, Inc.; WAIS server -- Thinking Machines Corporation; printing and computer facilities -- Wendy Williams, Williams & Williams and Ron Suarez, Ph.D., Arbor Intelligent Systems; computer facilities -- Kevin L. Ferguson, M.D.; Genesis LPMUD -- Lars Pensjo and Chalmers Dataforenger, Chalmers Institute of Technology; research assistance -- GVSU Library, University of Michigan (UM) Graduate and Engineering Libraries; online library catalogs -- UM, GVSU, Library of Congress; public computer sites -- GVSU; all online catalogs, anonymous FTP sites, gophers, archie servers and other research resources on the Net; transportation -- Mark Zapytowski. Special thanks to Joe Wisdom for much volunteer system administration, and Greg Boynton for spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars assisting with (RIP).

Thanks to Howard Rheingold, Michael Hauben, Ronda Hauben, and Mike Godwin for providing to me texts of their writings.

Finally, last but certainly not least, a *BIG* thanks to the hundreds of net.citizens who have helped in many ways with information, criticism, advice and encouragement.

Copyright (C) 1992, 1993 Henry Edward Hardy. Some portions of this work were previously published in Hardy, "The Usenet System," International Teleconferencing Association (ITCA) Yearbook 1993, p. 140-151, copyright Henry Edward Hardy 1992.  


The following books may be ordered now in association with To order, click on the book you want and *immediately* select "add to my shopping basket" before visiting any other links. You can use the "back" button on your browser to return to the History of the Net to add more selections or go on to complete your order from Order fulfillment is handled through Amazon books via their online ordering system. For more book selections, see

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