March 1998

Looking Back at The Good Old Days

Book Review: Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet
by Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben
IEEE Computer Society, 1997
ISBN 0-8186-7706-6
384 pages

Review by Mark Horton

Netizens describes the history of the Internet, focusing especially on the formation of the Usenet bulletin board system. For me it was a trip down memory lane. The social and political implications of opening up communication among a group of academic philosophers was groundbreaking, and Netizens gives us the play-by-play.

The book includes interviews with the founders of Usenet and with the pioneers who contributed to its character and growth. The story of how Tom Truscott's summer job at Bell Labs, volleyball, chess, and "rising at the crack of noon" turned into the seed of Usenet is inspiring, especially in this age of cost-cutting and disposable computer software.

The authors make good use of an archive of the first few years of Usenet postings. Those of us who were there remember much, but the archive is like putting history on videotape. Quotes from the formative days remind us of the issues of the time, such as the unwillingness of the ARPANET to talk to Usenet; censorship; and how the high cost of getting Usenet to Europe was overcome.

Several chapters tell the history of many of the building blocks of the Internet. The early days of the ARPANET are chronicled, from the selection of the first four sites in 1968 to the people involved and how they solved the early problems of the net. Netizens also tells the story of the UNIX operating system, how it came about, the key contributors, even how the grep command got its name.

Photos from the 1950s showing computer center machine rooms with IBM 704 components taking up the entire room, key researchers at places like MIT, computer chess tournaments, and the founders of Usenet add to the sense of history.

This is an excellent book. The academic style means you'll have to think to read it. This book is a vital element in any Internet historian's library.

Mark Horton ( led the early growth of Usenet in the 1980s, and participated in the development of Berkeley UNIX. He is currently a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Lucent Technologies in Columbus, Ohio.

Copyright © 1998 by Mark Horton. All Rights Reserved.


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