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

Linda Hess linda.hess at gmail.com
Fri Nov 21 14:02:11 PST 2014

Hi Craig,
I've been away for a few days, but I want to thank you for your answer to
my question, especially about the length of time it would take to send
email and receive a response.

I've learned a lot from different members of this group. I've decided,
based on the responses, to bump up my time frame from 1990 to 1994. I was
on email at that time, and by then I could freely and quickly send and
receive email.

Since my characters are private users, this seems to make the most sense to

I appreciate your willingness to spend some very thoughtful time on my

Best regards,
Linda Hess

On Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 8:43 AM, Craig Partridge <craig at aland.bbn.com>

> 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,
> Craig
> 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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