Skip to main content

… And Then There Was Usenet

June 2024
1min read

Even in the waning days of the Cold War, access to ARPAnet was limited to organizations doing federally funded research. Excluded graduate students and faculty members chafed, aware of all the cool new gear but unable to get their hands on it. In 1979 a group of graduate students at the University of North Carolina and Duke University collaborated to create their own network, which they called Usenet (having considered and rejected Arachnet and Chaosnet).

One of the most popular features of today’s Internet started as a poor cousin to ARPAnet

Usenet mimicked the mailing lists on ARPAnet, but with two key differences. Rather than copy the same messages into every subscriber’s mailbox, as ARPAnet lists did, Usenet sent one copy of each message to a site, like an electronic bulletin board, whose contents were accessible to all users who subscribed to the relevant “newsgroup.” Also in contrast to ARPAnet, the nodes on Usenet had no direct connections to one another; traffic was carried by telephone lines and three hundred-bit-per-second modems. The pokey modems used autodialers to exchange messages late at night, when phone rates were low. Passing from computer to computer, night after night, a new message might take a week to reach all the Usenet nodes. Or longer, as was the case with nodes in Australia, which received new messages via magnetic tape, airmailed weekly.

From its initial connection between the University of North Carolina and Duke, with about two messages posted a day, Usenet mushroomed. By 1987 it linked an estimated five thousand sites and carried about a thousand messages a day. By then interconnected with ARPAnet (through the University of California at Berkeley, which was a node on both systems), Usenet mirrored ARPAnet mailing lists as newsgroups. Snobby ARPAnet users initially derided Usenet subscribers’ postings and especially their arriviste non-ARPA return addresses.

Unplanned, unpredictable, raucous as a Friday-night frat party, the number of newsgroups expanded. Some systems refused to carry such off-color groups as net.rec.drugs. In the mid- and late 1980s operators of Usenet backbone computers created a “talk” hierarchy to isolate the worst of the animal houses. But the original settlers were fighting a losing battle. In 1987 the anything-goes “alt” (alternative) hierarchy was created. As ARPAnet, Usenet, and the other computer networks all merged into what is now called the Internet,, alt.drugs, and alt.rock-n-roll flourished. A3 had replaced C3.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.