Messaging Pioneer Dies at Age 45

One of the Internet’s pioneering architects, Jim Ellis, died Thursday at the age of 45.

Ellis, with fellow grad student Tom Truscott, conceived a design for linking computer bulletin boards that evolved into the Usenet system, which is still used today to deliver more than 40,000 newsgroups on servers around the globe.

In 1979, Ellis was a systems administrator at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, working on the school’s PDP 11/70. “There were no PCs back then,” said Truscott, who today works as a senior developer for SAS Software. “Even a cheap Usenet-capable computer cost $50,000. Our fancy PDP 11/70, with a dozen computer terminals, cost $150,000.”

After a late-night session struggling to link their system with one at the nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ellis and Truscott had a rambling conversation and “the idea that led to Usenet just popped out,” said Truscott.

The concept — a communications system for changing messages among every computer system in the world — was bold enough, but it was a modest vision compared with the success of the system they created.

“We did think Usenet could grow to connect every computer science department in the U.S. and (long distance telephone budgets willing) elsewhere,” said Truscott. However, that was a universe of only about a thousand sites: “Computer science departments and large corporations were the only places that could afford to buy and maintain a computer,” said Truscott.

Even so, Ellis began to evangelize for a system he said would give users a forum to share academic ideas, collaborate on work or even post classified ads. This, more than a decade before the World Wide Web was introduced.

One of Ellis’ first converts was a fellow North Carolina grad student, Steve Belovin. He wrote the 150-line shell script that ran the first version of the shared bulletin board.

Soon after, Ellis traveled to Boulder, Colorado for a January 1980 Unix users conference, where he presented “Invitation to a General Access UNIX Network.” The audience of 400 took Ellis up on the invitation. And invited hundreds more.

In the first wave of messages, the topic was computers, but soon people were discussing science fiction. Before long, the first classified appeared. Truscott said, “Someone in New Jersey tried to sell her dinette set for $25. A reply from Australia asked if that included shipping.”

According to Truscott, “As sites started to hook, people wanted to call it something. So Jim coined usenet But people debated that on the Net for a while. Contenders were chaosnet, arachnet and even uuweb. Usenet won.”

As the message boards spread, so did the project to improve the software which Bellovin had willingly shared with the community. Even then, the pioneering team had only the slightest glimmer of how successful their system would become.

Said Belovin, who is now working for AT&T Research on security issues, “Our estimate was 1 to 2 articles a day for 50 systems by 1982.”

Ellis worked for a number of years on Internet security issues at CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) and most recently was with Sun Microsystems. In 1995, he, Truscott and Belovin were honored with the Usenix Lifetime Acheivement Award and an Electronic Freedom Foundation Pioneer Award. The cause of death was non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He is survived by his wife Carolyn who worked with him as a systems engineer in North Carolina.

And, all indications are that the Usenet concept will continue to survive Ellis for many years to come.

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