[mailhist-discuss] Question about the early use of email

Craig Partridge craig at aland.bbn.com
Wed Nov 19 05:43:56 PST 2014

Hi Linda:

I’ll hazard a short answer — for a richer answer I recommend dropping a note to John Quarterman.  Or perhaps this note will cause the rest of the list to chime in :-)

1990 is just before a transition — a bunch of email networks are about to go away, being swept away by the rush to the Internet.  But in 1990, they are still active.  The complete list of email networks of the time can be found in Quarterman’s book, “The Matrix” published in 1990 and widely available from used bookstores.

Almost all of those networks served academics or researchers.  So, to your particular perspective, namely a “private user”, the answer is there were not a lot of choices (at least in the US).  Your hypothetical user would likely have access one of three ways:

* Via COMPUSERV- my recollection is that COMPUSERV had an (ugly) way to email Internet users but Quarterman does not describe one.
* The Well — a rather small but vigorous email community centered around northern California — could email to most other computer networks
* Via UUNET — this is the UNIX-to-UNIX dialup network —which by 1990 was used by a wide range of high tech companies.

For COMPUSERV and the Well your user needed a PC or simply a dumb terminal and a modem to dial-in.  Data rates were painfully slow.
Given the logistics of setting up and operating a UUNET/USENET site, a hypothetical user was either a serious techie or used email only at his/her worksite.

Another thing to observe is that email was basically an overnight service on most networks at the time.  That is, unless you exchanged email on the same system, the larger Matrix of email-compatible networks swapped email at night, when dialup phone rates were least expensive.  So your character can’t send an email in mid-afternoon and expect an answer an hour later unless both parties were, say, on COMPUSERV.  Normally, the other party won’t get the email until the next day and you would not expect to see a reply until the day after that….  Only on a limited set of networks would you see near instant delivery (the Internet and BITNET come to mind).  Also, emailing off your service was often painful — by 1990, the Internet, BITNET, UUNET and CSNET were using a consistent format of user at example.com — but other systems did not, and ghastliness resulted if you wanted your email to cross network boundaries (cf. Adams and Fry book “!%@“, — which reads “Bang, Percent, At” or your favorite curseword as appropriate… which described how to bridge the boundaries).

Hope this is useful,


> On Nov 17, 2014, at 12:44 PM, Linda Hess <linda.hess at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hello to the group!
> I spoke to our moderator back in September, and he gave the the go-ahead to post this question even though it's not exactly what you all normally discuss (at least, not from what I can see).
> I was doing a search on the history of email from a private user perspective (as opposed to the use of email by the military, academic, and other early-adaptor communities). 
> What I hope you can tell me is as follows:
> 1. Who was most likely to have access to email in 1990? I didn't have access until 1994, and that was through my employer, so I really don't know the answer to this question.
> 2. What were the most likely ways that strangers made personal connections? I met a person who became a close friend on an email discussion group (via Listserve) in 1995. FWIW, that list still is active to this day!
> 3. If people lost touch with each other, how easy was it to find a person again in the pre-Google days? Could a person pretty much disappear if they chose not to answer email?
> These questions are for a novel I'm writing. As my early Internet experience is limited, I'd truly appreciate whatever insight anyone might wish to offer. I you want to reply off-list, that's fine.
> Many thanks and best regards,
> Linda Hess
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