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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

The End of an Era

It only took ten minutes. On January 7, 2003, the member representatives of the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN) voted to dissolve that organization "as soon as appropriate."  You might be wondering, "what is CREN?"  Old-timers might remember CREN as the midlife custodian of BITNET, the first worldwide educational network. (http://www.cren.net/cren/cren-hist-fut.html)


The dissolution of CREN places the final punctuation mark on the story of BITNET.  Many in academia first transferred files, subscribed to mailing lists, or sent an e-mail on BITNET.  While not as glamorous or technologically advanced as the Internet, BITNET provided much utility in the days before intercontinental networking was as common as a 25-cent cup of coffee -- oh, make that a $2.75 double latte.   

BITNET was born as a research project in 1981 that linked Yale University and City University of New York. Within a few years, the network was nation wide.  I remember my first exposure to BITNET as a computer operator in 1984. One feature of BITNET was a chat function (the forbearer of Internet Relay Chat or IRC and commercial clones like AOL Instant Messenger). When someone on the previous shift had joined a BITNET chat session, I'd be subjected to a stream of inane and juvenile one-line comments streaming across the screen (some things never change).  

When I joined Academic Computing in 1987, I was assigned the task of being the BITNET educational representative, which made it my job to spread the word and provide education and documentation on this still mostly unknown resource.  This column was born as one such educational effort.  Over the years, I was able to observe BITNET grow to its height of usage, and then gradually whither under the increasing glare of the burgeoning Internet.  

In spite of the fact that it's been quite some time since information was routed between BITNET nodes, there are remnants of BITNET which survive on today's webified Internet.  As mentioned, chat sessions were commonplace on BITNET before the Internet was The Internet. E-mail was refined on BITNET, and those emoticons (like the smiley face :) were first utilized on BITNET LISTSERV mailing lists.  And speaking of LISTSERV, it survives practically intact from its BITNET days, which proves that a good idea will survive even the technology which spawned it.  

So, please forgive this last bit of BITNET education.  This quiet passing of the last remnant of BITNET serves to remind us that changes in technology are inevitable and sometimes occur without us really noticing.  The lesson to learn is that good ideas last, even when technology moves forward.


For a complete trip down memory lane, see Hobbes' Internet Timeline v6.0 - Ed.