2021-06-07 16:55:48 UTC
Ronda: What was the origin of Usenet? Was there a Unix News program before
you folks at Duke and University of North Carolina developed Netnews?
Tom: I think the DEC PDP 11/70 there (at Bell Labs named "research") had a
primitive "news" program that printed unread files found in the directory
But Duke already had a program (from one of the early user
group tapes) that supported multiple "categories" of news. (I don't think
the program was called "news" though), so I wasn't impressed.
In the UNIX (Version 7) manual set there were two papers on
UUCP. One was "A Dial-Up Network of UNIX Systems" by D.A. Nowitz and M.E.
Lesk, August 1978. The other was "UUCP Implementation Description" by D.A.
Nowitz, October 1978. (UNIX V7 didn't ship until the summer of 1979
though.). So I have always thought of Dan Nowitz as a principal author of
UUCP. It is odd that in a recent USENIX ;Login: I think I saw Mike Lesk
but NOT Nowitz being given some recognition for UUCP.
Ronda: Did you continue to play computer chess after you and the other
folks at the University of North Carolina and Duke created Usenet?
Tom: In 1980 we competed in the Third World Computer Chess Championship
held in Linz, Austria. Ken and Joe Condon (a researcher at Bell Labs) had
completed their hardware chess machine and snagged first place. (From then
on, hardware chess machines have dominated the championships. The
flexibility of software programs has not been enough to overcome the raw
speed of chess hardware.)
"Duchess" came in second (or maybe third, I forget).
Claude Shannon was in attendance, and even handed out the
trophies at the awards ceremony.
Afterwards we all went over to a TV studio to watch a West
German TV special on computer chess and the championship. Claude Shannon
and his wife were very engaging people. Someone took a photo of all of us,
I have a copy buried somewhere.(3)
Ronda: What happened when you got back to Duke in Fall 1979? Did you keep
in contact with folks from Bell Labs?
Tom: When I got back to Duke I set up UUCP, and Thompson also called in
from time to time.
We really didn't get much software updating from them.
Technically they should not supply it anyway, due to the various rules and
Ronda: I wondered if anything happened at Bell Labs over the summer that
helped you to propose Usenet...
Tom: Not really.
Ronda: Can you say what it was that led you or you and Jim Ellis to
conceive of Usenet?
Tom: Well, here is some text I wrote about that a few months ago:
"I think there was a confluence of things in fall 1979 that
brought it about.
1. Jim had installed the latest UNIX (Version 7) which broke many old
programs including a public domain "news" program that had been sent out
on one of the early UNIX User Group tapes. (In summer 1979 the user group
was renamed USENIX to avoid trademark problems.) [It was earlier than
that, but the first new meeting was summer 1979] I don't think the program
was called "news"
(perhaps it was called "items"). I think it allowed items to be entered
under one of several "categories". It had a number of problems (including
a 512 byte limit per item), so we were thinking about writing a completely
new program. Then we could contribute it to the next user group tape and
hopefully achieve some minor level of fame.
2. I had worked for Ken Thompson at Bell Labs in the summer of 1979 and
was in UNIX heaven the whole time. I also attended the summer 1979 USENIX
conference in Toronto. Returning to Duke in the fall meant the end of
that. Our only connection with the outside UNIX world was the user group
newsletter ;Login:, but we had not seen one in a while. It was published
on an erratic schedule by a professor [Mel Ferentz] who had a lot of other
demands on his time. We were quite nervous that should anything happen to
him this tenuous connection would be lost entirely.
3. UNIX (Version 7) came with UUCP. This complex (for its day)
program made it easy to send e-mail and files to other UNIX (Version 7)
sites over phone lines provided that one end had an auto-dialing telephone
and modem and the other an auto-answering telephone and modem. The Duke
Computer Science PDP 11/70 had both."
(We built the auto-dialers ourselves. An interesting
We were using UUCP to contact two other UNIX machines at
Duke and also one at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill.
So one night Jim and I had a rambling conversation about
these things and the idea behind Usenet just popped out.
We held a few meetings to figure out the details. Two other
local UNIX enthusiasts also attended: Dennis Rockwell from Duke and Steven
Bellovin from UNC. We decided on the transfer format (what an article
would look like on the wire) and on the basic functionality of the
software. Steven Bellovin implemented this stuff with shell scripts as
proof of concept. It was impressively slow, but it worked!
We also decided on terminology such as "newsgroups". We
probably chose that due to the newsletter analogy. This was long before
the PC and "bulletin boards". We may have chosen incorrectly but it wasn't
due to carelessness. One thing we didn't decide on was the name of the
network. I think early on Jim coined "Usenet", but our first announcement
did not use that (or any other) name.
An energetic new Duke graduate student,Stephen Daniel, also
turned out to be a UNIX enthusiast. He created the dotted newsgroup
structure that we know and love today, and wrote the first production
version of news ("A-news").
Ronda: Fred Brooks, who wrote "The Mythical Man Month" about the problems
of creating large software projects was a Professor at the University of
North Carolina. Did he do anything to help with Usenet?
Tom: He was not involved in the early (or later) Usenet as far as I know.
He did pay for a leased line between U.N.C. and Duke that made
communication via UUCP a "free good". But we really didn't seek faculty
help for Usenet except for clerical issues such as handling long distance
bills until we were reimbursed.
Ronda: How did you present Usenet to people at USENIX in Winter of 1980?
Tom: Jim Ellis presented a talk, but people did not come specifically to
hear his talk. There was no preannouncement of Usenet. We didn't even have
a name for the thing. There were 400 attendees, no parallel sessions, and
pretty much everyone heard everything. Ah, the good old days.
Ronda: I have been told that the reason "A-news" was written is that the
early shell script version of Usenet was too slow and tied up the computer
science departments computer. Is that why the "A-news" version of Usenet
was done to replace the shell script version?
Tom: We never seriously considered implementing news as a shell script.
It did not tie up the Department computer. We did, however,
have that problem with regard to UUCP. A grad student, Jothy Rosenburg,
had a PDP/11 at Duke Student Health that ran UNIX. He used UUCP to ship
files back and forth. The files got larger and larger tying up our phone
lines (we only had two) and when he shipped a 500 Kbyte file which at 300
baud took 5 hours to transfer, some people indeed hit the roof....Besides
people blamed the problem on people playing computer games. But I
monitored phone use rather carefully and statistically game playing was a
total non-problem. But people had their minds made up. This was in the
fall of 1979 before news. News to U.N.C. (and to phs) used fast leased
lines which were not a problem. News elsewhere happened in the dead of
night which again was not a problem. Usenet was being shipped via e-mail
(not gateways of mailing lists) long before 1982.