BITNET had people in universities all over the world; it had world-wide email; it had real-time, interactive chat, one-to-one or in “Relay” chatrooms in places like CERN; it had world-wide remote file archives you could grab files from by issuing commands; it had world-wide “Listserv” email discussion lists; you could query if people were logged on across the world; it had disconnected “answering machines”; it had email to and from all other networks.
The whole thing (BITNET plus connected networks) was the embryonic Internet. The protocol has simply migrated to IP since, that’s all. If BITNET wasn’t the Internet, then neither was Arpanet before it switched to IP in 1983.
– Mark Humphrys; The Internet in the 1980s.
BITNET was an early world leader in network communications for the research and education communities, and helped lay the groundwork for the subsequent introduction of the Internet, especially outside the US.
BITNET was a “store-and-forward” network similar to the Usenet, and coincidentally invented at about the same time, in 1981, by Ira Fuchs and Greydon Freeman at the City University of New York (CUNY), and originally named for the phrase “Because It’s There Net”, later updated to “Because It’s Time Net”.
The system was originally based on IBM’s VNET email system and used the Remote Spooling Communications Subsystem (RSCS) and NJE/NJI protocols on the IBM Virtual Machine (VM) mainframe operating system. Later, RSCS was emulated on other popular operating systems like DEC VMS and Unix to extend BITNET to institutions that didn’t run VM. The network was designed to be inexpensive and efficient, and so was built as a tree structure with only one path from one computer to another, and like the early Usenet with low bandwidth telephone connections, typically at 9600 bps or about 960 characters a second. A far cry from today’s internet speeds!
The first BITNET connection was from CUNY to Yale University. By the end of 1982 the network included 20 institutions. By the end of the 80’s it connected about 450 universities and research institutions and 3000 computers throughout North America and Europe. By the early 90’s, BITNET was the most widely used research communications network in the world for email, mailing lists, file transfer, and real-time messaging.
The network was managed in the United States by the BITNET Network Information Center (BITNIC) and EDUCOM (later EDUCAUSE). In 1988, the managing boards of BITNET and CSNET voted to merge, thereby creating a a larger network managed by the new Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN). The related networks elsewhere in the world were managed in Canada by NetNorth formed in 1984, in Europe by the European Academic and Research Network (EARN) formed in 1983, and in Japan by AsiaNet.
One of the most popular elements of BITNET was their mailing lists on every subject under the sun, from butterfly biology to theoretical physics, usually filtered and approved by a human moderator, and supported by the LISTSERV software. Because the two networks were similar in nature and used by many of the same institutions, BITNET began posting their mailing lists on the Usenet in the bit.* hierarchy by the end of the 1980’s.
A second network called BITNET II was created in 1987, in an effort to provide a higher bandwidth network similar to the NSFNET. However, by 1996, it was clear that the Internet was providing a range of communication capabilities that fulfilled BITNET’s roles, so CREN ended their support and the network slowly faded away. By the year 2000, the remaining BITNET heritage mailing lists in regular use were a blues music discussion group at bit.listserv.blues-l and the new-list mailing list at bit.listserv.new-list.
Resources. The following resources provide more information:
- Condon, Chris; BITNET USERHELP; October, 1990
- Condon, Chris; NetHistory – An Informal History of BITNET and the Internet
- Grier, David Alan; Campbell, Mary; A Social History of Bitnet and Listserv, 1985?1991; April 2000
- Gedney, Carolyn; Access to the World Through A Network Known As Bitnet; 20 August 1993
- Humphrys, Mark, The Internet in the 1980s
- Official Introduction of The History Network, 23 Feb 1993
- Winding Down BITNET-NJE, 1996.