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Joining the networks
John Murphy (Senior Technical Officer) wrote in 2010:
“The Internet” as we know it nowadays had been in the process of evolving ever since the early 1970s. By about 1990 the perceived threat from the Russian Bear had greatly diminished and so-called Glasnost arrived. The US Defense Department had been the main source of funding for the development of the network and the US Government decided then that the time had come for it to, in effect, Go Public by freeing up the technology in the hope of recouping their investment via the opportunities for increased trade & commerce that would inevitably follow on from easier, faster and cheaper communications. Almost on cue, the greatest so-called ‘Killer Application’ of all time hit the streets about that same time, namely the development at CERN, Geneva of the technology that evolved into the World Wide Web.
Hang on — I’ve jumped the gun again! Press Rewind briefly…
Back in 1985 when UCC was still an IBM mainframe customer, we availed of the opportunity to join an IBM-funded academic network called BitNet — or, to be pedantic, EARN — European Academic Research Network, as it was called on this side of the Atlantic! We were able to connect both our IBM and VAX computers to the network and although the services available would be deemed primitive by today’s standards, it became very popular with students — or to be more precise, with a at least a few hundred students. After all, the student population back then must’ve been only 7k at most and there were only a handful of ‘computer labs’ around campus, all of them equipped with mere DEC VT100 terminals or equivalent.
At any rate, once we were connected to BitNet/EARN, both files and messages could be sent to contacts at other universities around the world. File-sharing was also made possible. Email facilities had existed for many years prior to then but in practice only as a way to send messages to other fellow-users on a non-networked mainframe. Suddenly our staff and students could now communicate not only with the thousands of other academic sites on BitNet/EARN but also, thanks to the many ‘gatewaying’ facilities that began to spring up, with the growing number of academic sites on the ‘early’ Internet. Technically, we weren’t on the Internet, but we definitely were on the fringes. The more versatile email facilities that became available then on each our mainframes took a long time to catch on, although as always the students were by far the more enthusiastic users…
Our link to the BitNet/EARN service was finally ‘retired’ in about ?1994. From the mid-1980s there had been a flurry of activity by the Irish universities — coordinated by the HEA — in developing what eventually became HEANET, and this service ‘went live’ from about 1991(?). The Internet as we now know it had finally arrived.
John Murphy (Senior Technical Officer) added this in 2010:
It has to be borne in mind that prior to at least the early 1990s, attempting to create even a primitive network of linked computers within a campus was, by today’s standards, a massively expensive undertaking. Bear in mind also that the earlier Apple IIs, MACs and IBM PCs were difficult to connect to a network and, frankly, not really all that reliable. Moreover, up until the mid-1980s when the Micro-VAX models came on the market, ‘real’ computers were still relatively expensive. As a result, the Computer Centre remained in effect the “IT Capital” of UCC until a few of the academic departments gradually ‘went solo’ by acquiring their own MicroVAXes. Most undergrad courses — outside of Computer Science, obviously — just didn’t have a significant IT component.
Peter Flynn (Head of Academic and Collaborative Technologies) added this in 2013:
When I arrived in 1984, academic facilities consisted of the 4341 and the VAX, and a handful of PCs in departments that could afford them. Leo Durity, a former staff member turned consultant, lent us our first Apple Mac, which we all loved — but it wouldn't connect to anything (nor, to be honest, would the PCs), making them effecively useless.
Soon, however, we got connected to BitNet/EARN, and started to take advantage of wide-area networking. Over the next few years French user Eric Thomas wrote LISTSERV (still used in UCC); Turkish user Turgut Kalfaoglu wrote TRICKLE, which let Bitnet/EARN users download files from Internet FTP servers over email (chunked to avoid clogging the network); and American user Jeff Kell at UTC came up with RELAY, the first wide-area interactive messaging (chat) system, using the TELL command in CMS. UCC contributed also: Peter Flynn wrote the world's first bidirectional email-fax gateway (Flynn, 1990), and the world's first email-accessible Acronym Database (still online, although not to email, and not in UCC).
When we got our first Internet connection we were just in time to start using the World Wide Web. The roller-coaster hasn't stopped since...
Peter Flynn (1990) ‘Developing a low-cost electronic mail fax gateway’. In: P. Van Binst, J. Harms, V. Cerf (eds.) Second Joint European Networking Conference, Elsevier Special Issue, [Details]