Mailing List History

The way most people keep up to date on network news is through subscription to a number of mail reflectors (also known as mail exploders). Mail reflectors are special electronic mailboxes which, when they receive a message, resend it to a list of other mailboxes. This in effect creates a discussion group on a particular topic.

– E. Krol; The Hitchhikers Guide to the Internet; RFC 1118; Sept. 1989.

Who invented mailing lists? Early forms of mailing lists were invented almost as soon as email was invented. It quickly became apparent that by combining several email addresses together into a single address, one email could be easily sent to a group of people in one action.

The first mailing lists carried on the ARPANET were based on the first email program SNDMSG. Some of the early and most popular mailing lists included the following:

  • human-nets. Human factors and their relation to networks.
  • network-hackers. Internet programming and protocol issues.
  • sf-lovers. Science fiction literature.
  • wine-tasters. Wine tasting.

Google Groups has some interesting historical logs of SF-lovers, human-nets, and other ARPANET mailing lists from the early 1980’s. In fact, it was these lists that inspired Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott to develop the Usenet to provide similar functionality for organizations that weren’t connected to the ARPANET.

A version of mailing lists was also created on the BITNETnetwork to enable thousands of researchers in organizations around the world to exchange information. BITNET also copied most of their mailing lists to the Usenet newsgroups.

For many years there have been three mailing list software applications that run most mailing lists (see more information at the linked pages):

  • Listserv history. Originally conceived by Ira Fuchs and Dan Oberst and implemented by Ricky Hernandez to support BITNET lists. Revised version developed in 1986 by Eric Thomas.
  • Majordomo history. First version written by Brent Chapman in about 20 hours. John Rouillard managed it for several versions, and it is now worked on by a free open source software group of developers across the Internet, and maintained by Chan Wilson.
  • Listproc history. Listproc was originally developed for Unix computers by Anastasios Kotsikonas (“Tasos”) at Boston University in the 1980’s. It became very successful, and is now supported by the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN).

Historical applications. There have been many other types of mailing list management software developed over the years, including those listed below:

  • Almanac
  • BMW
  • IDG
  • MReply
  • SmartList
  • Smof
  • TULP