Sadly this article in the New York Times reminds me of a curious lesson in technology as well as putting another dent in any desire to return to the Boston area.
The Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, MA never represented fine dining. It was one of those curiosities that anyone living in New England in the 70s and 80s had to make a pilgrimage to. I recalled it fondly, and several years ago my wife and I made a stop there for a nostalgic visit during a trip back to Boston. But what justifies this blog entry is not nostalgia but rather an incident that occurred in the days long before the Internet, in the early days of technologies we now take for granted.
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was an early leader in networking, supplying many of the systems used in the Arpanet and engaging in the First World War of networking technology. DEC’s DNA vs. IBM’s SNA. Today’s networking world is still built around evolved versions of the “Ethernet”, which was at the core of DEC’s DNA implementation known as DECnet. So I guess DEC won that war :-) DEC, of course, had a connection to the Arpanet (and sending the first known piece of SPAM over same). But the more interesting historical tidbit here is that as part of creating DECnet DEC’s engineering organization networked all its computers into the Engineering Network (ENET). This would eventually go beyond engineering to become the DEC corporate network, and also become the transcontinental backbone of the early Internet.
The early email systems were emerging at the same time, initially being used between users of the same timesharing systems and later being connected via the Mail-11 networking protocol (which came out of the Mail program for RSX-11, my rusty brain is telling me). I don’t recall Mail-11 being official at the time, but the protocol was implemented across DEC’s products so we had it on TOPS-20 as well. It was interesting watching social behaviors change as email became available to a wider and wider audience. We went from merely exchanging work items like “I checked in that device driver” to saying “Want to go check out the old computers (soon to be Computer Museum) in MK2?”. Yeah, seems kinda pedestrian in this day and age but try telling that to people outside the industry who still had no exposure to computers other than TV’s portrayal of endlessly spinning tape drives.
And then one day a mail message went out to everyone on the Engineering Network. It went something like “Dinner at Hilltop at 6:00”. No I don’t recall the exact wording. Or who sent it. Or if it really was to all of Engineering (which was at least 1000 people at that point) or had just been forwarded around so much that everyone got it. But at the appointed time a significant number of DEC engineers found themselves standing in line outside the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus.
So the first mass emailing that I recall was not about company benefits, nor an invitation to a meeting, nor any official use of a large network. It was to organize a flash mob.