November 2019
The Early History of Usenet, Part I: Prologue (14 November 2019)
The Early History of Usenet, Part II: The Technological Setting (14 November 2019)
The Early History of Usenet, Part III: Hardware and Economics (15 November 2019)
The Early History of Usenet, Part IV: File Format (17 November 2019)
The Early History of Usenet, Part V: Implementation and User Experience (21 November 2019)
The Early History of Usenet, Part VI: Authentication and Norms (22 November 2019)
The Early History of Usenet, Part VII: The Public Announcement (25 November 2019)
The Early History of Usenet, Part VIII: Usenet Growth and B-news (30 November 2019)

The Early History of Usenet, Part VIII: Usenet Growth and B-news

30 November 2019

For quite a while, it looked like my prediction—one to two articles per day—was overly optimistic. By summer, there were only four new sites: Reed College, University of Oklahoma (at least, I think that that’s what uucp node uok is), vax135, another Bell Labs machine—and, cruciallyy, U.C. Berkeley, which had a uucp connection to Bell Labs Research and was on the ARPANET.

In principle, even a slow rate of exponential growth can eventually take over the world. But that assumes that there are no “deaths” that will drive the growth rate negative. That isn’t a reasaonable assumption, though. If nothing else, Jim Ellis, Tom Truscott, Steve Daniel, and I all planned to graduate. (We all succeeded in that goal.) If Usenet hadn’t shown its worth to our successors by then, they’d have let it wither. For that matter, university faculty or Bell Labs management could have pulled the plug, too. Usenet could easily have died aborning. But the right person at Berkeley did the right thing.

Mary Horton was then a PhD student there. (After she graduated, she joined Bell Labs; she and I were two of the primary people who brought TCP/IP to the Labs, where it was sometimes known as the “datagram heresy”. The phone network was, of course, circuit-switched…) Known to her but unknown to us, there were two non-technical ARPANET mailing lists that would be of great interest to many potential Usenet users, HUMAN-NETS and SF-LOVERS. She set up a gateway that relayed these mailing lists into Usenet groups; these were at some point moved to the fa (“From ARPANET”) hierarchy. (For a more detailed telling of this part of the story, see Ronda Hauben’s writings.) With an actual traffic source, it was easy to sell folks on the benefits of Usenet. People would have preferred a real ARPANET connection but that was rarely feasible and never something that a student could set up: ARPANET connections were restricted to places that had research contracts with DARPA. The gateway at Berkeley was, eventually, bidirectional for both Usenet and email; this enabled Usenet-style communication between the networks.

SF-LOVERS was, of course, for discussing science fiction; then as now, system administrators were likely to be serious science fiction fans. HUMAN-NETS is a bit harder to describe. Essentially, it dealt with the effect on society of widespread networking. If it still existed today, it would be a natural home for discussions of online privacy, fake news, and hate speech, as well as the positive aspects: access to much of the world’s knowledge, including primary source materials that years ago were often hard to find, and better communications between people.

It is, in fact, unclear if the gateway was technically permissible. The ARPANET was intended for use by authorized ARPANET sites only; why was a link to another network allowed? The official reason, as I understand it, is that it was seen as a use by Berkeley, and thus passed muster; my actual impression is that it was viewed as an interesting experiment. The reason for the official restriction was to prevent a government-sponsored network from competing with then-embryonic private data networks; Usenet, being non-commercial, wasn’t viewed as a threat.

Uucp email addresses, as seen on the ARPANET, were a combination of a uucp explicit path and an ARPANET hostname. This was before the domain name system; the ARPANET had a flat name space back then. My address would have been something like

but also
research!duke!unc!smb at BERKELEY
—in this era, " at " was accepted as a synonym for "@"…

With the growth in the number of sites came more newsgroups and more articles. This made the limitations of the A-news user interface painfully apparent. Mary designed a new scheme; a high school student, Matt Glickman, implemented what became B-news. There were many improvements.

The most important change was the ability to read articles by newsgroup, and to read them out of order. By contrast, A-news presented articles in order of arrival, and only stored the high-water mark of continuous articles read. The input file format changed, too, to one much more like email. Here’s the sample from RFC 1036:

From: jerry@eagle.ATT.COM (Jerry Schwarz)
Path: cbosgd!mhuxj!mhuxt!eagle!jerry
Newsgroups: news.announce
Subject: Usenet Etiquette — Please Read
Message-ID: <642@eagle.ATT.COM>
Date: Fri, 19 Nov 82 16:14:55 GMT
Followup-To: news.misc
Expires: Sat, 1 Jan 83 00:00:00 -0500
Organization: AT&T Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill

The body of the message comes here, after a blank line.

The most interesting change was the existence of both From: and Path: lines. The former was to be used for sending email; the latter was used to track which sites had already seen an article. There is also the implicit assumption that there would be a suitable ARPANET-to-uucp gateway, identified by a DNS MX record, to handle email relaying; at this time, such gateways were largely aspirational and mixed-mode addresses were still the norm.

B-news also introduced control messages. As noted, these were unauthenticated; mischief could and did result. Other than canceling messagse, the primary use was for the creation of new newsgroups—allowing them to be created willy-nilly didn’t scale.

There was also control message support for mapping the network, which did not work as well as we expected. Briefly, the purpose of the senduuname message was to allow a site to calculate the shortest uucp path to a destination, both to relieve users of the mental effort to remember long paths and also to allow a shorter email path than simply retracing the Usenet path. (This was also a reliability feature; uucp email, especially across multiple hops, was not very reliable.) My code worked (and, after a 100% rewrite by Peter Honeyman) became my first published paper) but it was never properly integrated into mailers and the shorter paths were even less reliable than the long ones.

Finally, there were internal changes. A-news had used a single directory for all messages, but as the number of messages increased, that became a serious performance bottleneck. B-news use a directory per newsgroup, and eventually subdirectories that reflected the hierarchical structure.

The growth of Usenet had negative consequences, too: some sites became less willing to carry the load. Bell Labs Research had been a major forwarding site, but Doug McIlroy, then a department head, realized that the exponent in Usenet’s growth rate was, in fact, significant, and that the forwarding load was threatening to overload the site—star networks don’t scale. He ordered an end to email relaying. This could have been very, very serious; fortunately, there were a few other sites that had started to pick up the load, most notably decvax at Digital Equipment Corporations’ Unix Engineering Group. This effort, spearheaded by Bill Shannon and Armando Stettner, was quite vital. Another crucial relay site was seismo, run by Rick Adams at the Center for Seismic Studies; Rick later went on to found UUNET, which became the first commercial ISP in the United States. At Bell Labs, ihnp4, run by Gary Murakami, became a central site, too. (Amusingly enough, even though I joined the Labs in late 1982, I did not create another hub: as a very junior person, I didn’t feel that I could. But it wasn’t because management didn’t know about Usenet; indeed, on my first day on the job, my center’s director (three levels up from me) greeted me with, “Hi, Steve—I’ve seen your flames on Netnews.” I learned very early that online posts can convey one’s reputation…)

More on load issues in the next post.

Here is the table of contents, actual and projected, for this series.

  1. The Early History of Usenet: Prologue
  2. The Technological Setting
  3. Hardware and Economics
  4. File Format
  5. Implementation and User Experience
  6. Authentication and Norms
  7. The Public Announcement
  8. Usenet Growth and B-news
  9. The Great Renaming
  10. Retrospective Thoughts
  11. Errata

The tag URL will always take you to an index of all blog posts on this topic.