We all read, write and send emails every day. In fact, some days it seems that’s all we do. If you can’t remember a time before electronic communication, let David Bridge, a volunteer in the Institutional History Division, take you on a technical tour of the early days of computing at the Smithsonian.
In 1980 Smithsonian staff had typewriters and telephones on their desk, with maybe a FAX machines in each office. The Smithsonian used a single general-purpose computer, the Honeywell mainframe, for all Smithsonian data processing applications. It did not include an email application. Why should it? No one had a desktop computer.
As the Museum Support Center was under construction in 1982, the Smithsonian began researching an interactive computer system for the new facility that could document and manage the movement of tens of millions of specimens and objects to the new Suitland, Maryland, storage facility. One of the secondary requirements was a “mail message system.” Ultimately, a VAX-11/750 system from Digital Equipment Corporation was selected, and was operational in April 1983.
The MSC software development team was using email to communicate by the end of 1983 and its use was was greatly expanded the following year. The period of 1985-1988 saw rapid technological advances in networking, minicomputers, personal computers, and Local Area Network systems. Many Smithsonian offices and units, including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Libraries, and the Office of Protection Services, acquired computer systems during this period which included email software. However, at this time most computer networks were proprietary networks. Users could only exchange email with other people on the same email system. The development and adoption of protocols and and standards that allowed interoperability between different systems would not arrive until the 1990s.
The BITNET (Because It’s There Network) was a cooperative university network founded in 1981 by the City University of New York and Yale University that supported both email and batch file transfer. By 1986, BITNET linked 3,000 computers, primarily in academic institutions, demonstrating the speed and power of international email communications. The Smithsonian applied for membership in BITNET on August 15, 1986. An IBM-4381 mainframe was connected later that year with a node name of SIVM.
Later, the BITNET network was extended at the Smithsonian to two additional nodes: SIMSC (Museum Support Center) and SIMNH (Museum of Natural History), which remained active until at least March 1994. The Listserv software developed for BITNET allowed the creation of mailing lists such as MUSEUM-L (with 5,184 subscribers today), but the rapid growth of the Internet highlighted BITNET’s limitations and its use diminished quickly.
In July 1992 the Smithsonian network was connected to the Internet and our many internal email systems achieved greater interoperability as well as external connectivity, through the adoption of the SMTP Internet email standard. Smithsonian staff could communicate with colleagues globally, without waiting for a snail-mail reply.
I published the first Smithsonian Email Directory in March 1994. It listed 4,846 email addresses on 10 different computer email systems. An unknown number of staff had email addresses on different computer systems; for example, I had addresses on both the SIMSC and SIMNH systems. This Directory made the following observation:
Electronic mail has evolved from many local e-mail applications to a state where most e-mail applications can now exchange messages freely with each other. Sometimes additional software, hardware, and/or network connections may be required. However, there are still a few isolated islands in the archipelago, cut off from the rest of the Smithsonian and the rest of the world!
The largest email system at the Smithsonian, with 2,398 email addresses, was PROFS, operated by the Office of Information Resource Management. PROFS supported both email and a calendar application. By 1994, only a little more than half of Smithsonian staff had email capability. GroupWise frm Novell became the dominant email system by the late 1990s, though some offices used Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange.
Initially most people treated email as very informal communication, not worthy of being saved or archived. However, as email usage spread and it became the common method of conducting business, this attitude changed. The possibility that email correspondence could be historically valuable or an official record was recognized in an informative 1997 pamphlet distributed to Smithsonian staff. More recent guidance is available to the Smithsonian community and the general public on the Archives website.
Eventually, a decision was made to have one centrally supported email system for the Smithsonian. A single unified Smithsonian-wide email system was achieved when the last office was converted to Microsoft Exchange in 2005, more than twenty years after the first email was sent in 1983.
This is an edited version of a post originally published by the Smithsonian Institution Archives blog, The Bigger Picture.
Posted: 11 September 2015