The LISTSERV Story

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  • The Story of LISTSERV

    The Story of LISTSERV

    The First. The Only. The One.

  • Grandpa Paul ruled the Thomas family with an iron hand. Everyone was afraid of him. Everyone ... except for one little boy.

    If something was forbidden, little Eric just had to do it.

    And you'll see how that played out ...


  • In his early teens, Eric spent his weekends programming an IBM 370 mainframe at a science museum in Paris. IBM claimed that the mainframe's defenses were impenetrable, so of course Eric had to prove them wrong in front of the media. After that, two TV programs were made about him.


  • By the mid-1980s, Eric was an engineering student. When he was told that his university did not give its students access to the net, he offered to work for free at a rival university in exchange for an account on their mainframe and access to the BITNET network.


  • Eric developed a program that quickly topped the download charts on BITNET. He called it "Chat" because it allowed people to have organized conversations using BITNET's messy instant messaging technology, and because the word means "cat" in French and Eric loves cats.

  • Eric also joined a number of e-mail lists, but the most popular ones made snail mail seem fast ...

    What's worse, they were managed manually. It could take weeks for the admin to add or remove you from a list, especially during the summer. And once you were on the list, you had to endure dozens of messages saying,

    "Take me off your @#$#%# list!!!"

    Once a list had become popular and had grown in size, it collapsed under the weight of its own administration and became all but unusable.

    And Eric said ...

    Merde!


  • First LISTSERV screen art (never released)

    Over the weekend, Eric wrote a tool to automate e-mail list operation and dubbed it Revised LISTSERV. People thought this was too long, though, and just called it LISTSERV.

    LISTSERV was released on June 23, 1986, which happened to be Eric's 20th birthday.

  • To join a discussion list, you just sent mail to LISTSERV with the command:

    subscribe   name of the list    your name


    E-mail subscription via the postal service, 1987

    "Just send mail to LISTSERV" was sometimes understood a bit too literally ...


  • Second LISTSERV screen art (never released)


    Universities quickly adopted LISTSERV because it sped up their network access. Instead of sending thousands of identical e-mail messages to subscribers, a single message went to the "downstream" LISTSERV site. It made the necessary number of copies for its university and passed the message on.

    Not only did list mail arrive much faster than before, the net as a whole became less laggy.


  • Cover page art of the first LISTSERV manual


    This abstract composition actually represents something... Will you guess what? Find out the answer by participating in the live chat on September 15, 2011.


  • Program that created the LISTSERV cover page art


    Photoshop did not exist back then... You created graphical compositions by writing a program that calculated equations and plotted lines and points.

  • The first fully automated lists

    AGGIE-L - The fightin' Texas Aggies' list!!!

    CHAT - Distribution list for the Chat code

    LASER-L - Laser Printers Aquisitions [sic] list

    LSTSRV-L - Distribution list for the Revised LISTSERV code

    QUIET-L - "Quiet file transfer" information list

    RSCSMODS - The RSCS modifications list

    SYSTEM-L - Systems Information Mailing list

    TERMITE - TERMITE discussion/distribution List


    NetMonth Newsletter December 1986

  • As universities were increasingly abandoning mainframes, Eric realized that the only way to save LISTSERV was to go commercial and recruit programmers. In 1994, L-Soft was incorporated and later that year, the first version of LISTSERV for Unix and VMS was released.


  • So many new technologies were prophesied to "kill" LISTSERV in the past 25 years that it must have more lives than a ménagerie of cats!

  • The Story of LISTSERV
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