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May 04 2012

Some history of Confer and MailMan

Published by at 9:09 am under history of computers,VistA

When I came to the VA in 1978 at the Loma Linda VA hospital to work on what would come to be known as VistA, my first impression was that the VA was suffering from a “failure to communicate.”  The hierarchies and bureaucratic turf wars were inhibiting communication.   Based on my own experiences in learning German, and my studies in linguistics, I became an enthusiastic supporter of how language affects thought, and sought to create a speech community for people to talk about health.
I happened to have a telephone system that was capable of conferencing in 6 lines simultaneously, so every monday morning at 10AM, I would dial in the other members of the original “Hardhat” gang that was developing the software.  I’d call George Timson in San Francisco, Wally Fort and Cameron Schlehuber in Salt Lake City, Joe Tatarczuk in Albany, Bob Lushene in Bay Pines, Richard Davis in Lexington, and others who would often add others to the conference call.  This worked well, and coupled with face to face meetings, allowed us to communicate.
However, this had some drawbacks:
1.  It wasn’t scalable.  There were just so many folks who could be networked together.
2.  It was synchronous.  Everyone had to be at their phone at the same time.
3.  The conversation was single-threaded.  We could only talk about one thing at a time.
I began to look around to see what I could do to improve the situation, and discovered a digital conferencing system being worked on my Robert Parnes at Wayne State University called Confer II.  It allowed multiple users to communicate in threaded messages via dial up terminals.  We tried it for a bit, but at $10/hr, it was prohibitively expensive.
I had a chance to meet Bob when he came to San Diego in 1981 or 1982.  I was living in Riverside, near Loma Linda, which was in a hot desert climate.  So coming down to the ocean in San Diego was a great pleasure.  We drove up the coast, and ended up having lunch at the Beach House restaurant in Cardif by the Sea.
We had a delightful 3 hour lunch conversation which crystallized my thinking about the need for a community teleconferencing system.  Bob was generous with his time, knowing that he was helping me “fork” from his Confer software, but he was pleased to see the idea spreading.  (At least that is my recollection of the conversation.)   The difference was that I was embedding these ideas into the kernel of the VistA system, an integral part of the rest of the clinical applications.  I just wanted people to be able to communicate.  I wanted folks to be able to build a community around a topic, not just according to predefined structures, and I wanted that community to be able to see and control who else was on the thread.
This became the core user interface model I built into MailMan (Note that this is not the Python-based MailMan list manager)
About the same time, Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand were adopting Confer for use in the WELL, an early online virtual community software.
Ed Vielmetti sent me some background material on the early days of Confer:
This page has my 1985-era experience of Confer described pretty well: http://www.umich.edu/~umscp/history.html
and this one goes back a little bit further, to 1982: http://greatgreenroom.org/cgi-bin/bt/backtalk/wasabi/begin?item=19
The ur-text is the conferences themselves, which are in the Karl Zinn papers at the U of Michigan Bentley library:
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhlead/umich-bhl-0476
of which is noted:
The CONFER Sessions subseries is comprised of paper printouts from a subset of computer-based conferences that ran on the University of Michigan mainframe computing system (Michigan Terminal System) from 1975 to 1994. These were printed by Zinn, and are indicative of his involvement and interests. This subseries provides an informative view of the introduction, evolution and use of a new technology designed specifically to support computer-based communications. The subseries includes RP.CONFER the original conference that utilized the CONFER I application program; student administered conferences; conferences used to supplement class discussion; and a series of conferences designed for the International Science and Technology Assessment Congress held in Ann Arbor in 1976.
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