Archive for Sunday, April 10, 2011

Programmers created early ‘social network’ on mainframe computer at Kansas University in 1970s

April 10, 2011


Alexander Barket and John Borak, programmers who in 1976 wrote "Honk," a program that allowed users to post anonymous electronic messages on a Honeywell mainframe computer.

Alexander Barket and John Borak, programmers who in 1976 wrote "Honk," a program that allowed users to post anonymous electronic messages on a Honeywell mainframe computer.

First, it’s probably best that you picture the scene, and the people who came up with this.

It’s 1976 in the computer center at Kansas University’s Summerfield Hall. The computer is one of the few on campus, and it’s a pretty big computer — a Honeywell 635 mainframe computer, in fact. It uses punch cards.

It takes up a whole corner of Summerfield Hall in the basement, but it doesn’t have as much computing power as most of today’s smartphones.

It was used for administrative and academic functions of the university, but some students and other young people had access to it, too.

Two of them — Alexander Barket and John Borak — wrote a program in 1976 that served as something like today’s social media platforms. The program was called “Honk,” and it allowed users of the mainframe to post anonymous electronic messages that could be read by other users.

“Everybody who wanted to know anything about programming hung out at the Comp Center,” said Barket, who still lives in Lawrence and works as a research analyst for KU’s School of Social Welfare and other agencies.

Borak, an undergraduate student looking for a project, came to Barket, who had worked for the School of Business, but now was just sort of hanging around the center and buying computer time for his projects. Barket suggested they build a program that served as a sort of bulletin board for the programming community.

Borak today works in Bluetooth software engineering for Continental Tire and lives in Cary, Ill.

Honk is a kind of a retro-Twitter, without the character limitations — though many of the messages wound up being quite short, anyway.

Today, Barket and Borak, after stumbling on a printout of the old “honks” in storage, are planning to compile the material into book form.

Many of the “honks” are quite bawdy, as one might expect of younger, anonymous programmers. They’re all in capital letters because of the limits of the computers of the time. Many have dated references to pop culture (remember Perle Mesta?), but some still ring true today.


Honk from 1976, No. 88 —  “IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES; IT WAS THE PITS.”

Dave Nordlund, who worked as the assistant director of the computer center at the time, recalled the students, but not the program.

He described the culture of the place in today’s terms. Think about 19-year-olds who have spent their lives in front of a computer screen playing all sorts of games, who suddenly have access to the machine behind the games, he said.

These were incredibly smart people, he said, who were interested in soaking up as much as they could about programming. As for other social graces, well...

“These are people who probably didn’t even own a white shirt and tie,” said Nordlund, who is retired but still lives in Lawrence and works as a consultant.

And they were just as likely to be there at midnight as they were at noon, he said.

Barket guesses the number who used Honk was relatively small — he doubts if there were more than 25 total Honk authors.

Honk from 1977, No. 16 — “HE’D BE OKAY IF ONLY HE’D BATHE ONCE IN AWHILE.”


Barket and Borak aren’t sure if anyone would enjoy a book. The worst that could happen is that no one cares, Borak said.

But it’s still fun to look back through the old honks, they said. Some make fun of Jimmy Carter’s (“B’DEAH, B’DEAH, B’DEAH.... DUH?” one Honker summarized his acceptance speech), and others provide a window to the past — one joke about cocaine remarks that if the drug “isn’t fresh, then I’m outta business,” a reference to an old Wonder Bread commercial where a farmer (and a loaf of bread) say that line.

The community slowly died out, Barket said, but not before some people learned a lesson that’s still relevant today.

“Be careful what you write where everyone else can read it,” he said.


squarepusher 3 years ago

Guess it took the success of Facebook to bring out this article. heh heh.


LloydDobbler 3 years ago

Nice story, Andy. It's good to know there are pioneers on campus!


mmather 3 years ago

We had a sort of social network back in the 1950's. It was called a 16 member party line. At 7pm. my bother and sisters would call some one on the line. That was the signal for the other 14 to p/u. They could talk and cross chat all evening..


tange 3 years ago


(You aren't from around here, are you?) I was just being flip. The article took me back to my my college days (early 80s) and my brief stint at the card reader, submitting FORTRAN batches. I used to dread the slip-slip-slip-slip-[stall].

/ as did everyone else in line behind me


AlexanderBarket 3 years ago

Maybe it wasn't explicit. Honk only existed in the TSS (interactive) environment of the mainframe. Some 1000 to 2000 student jobs might pass through the machine. Jobs were submitted via punched card for most users. Some students, and many professional programmers used the TSS system to submit jobs and then go to the Hawklet while the machine churned on the work.

Honking was available only to TSS users: Online users of the time. And the bulk of the posting was done by students who were enrolled in advanced CS courses.



AlexanderBarket 3 years ago

Acutally, the social component was two-fold. A space called the Hawklet existed where everyone would wait, look at their programs for changes they needed to make, etc.

The Honk users had access to the TSS (Time Sharing Service) which was accessed using terminals on an RS 232 linkup running from both hard-wired and dial up access points.

These were lucky folks who worked online without cardboard buffers (Punched cards.)

The networking was in the computing center areas, the Hawklet. The entire first floor of Summerfield west was the Hawklet. Tables, chairs, vending machines and 24 hour guru's.

I had several programmers working for me or doing things with me. John was one of these.


tange 3 years ago

So, did the social component take place when networkers collided on their way to the card reader and had to sort out their punches?


johnborak 3 years ago

"some of these things slip through you hands, and its no use talking or making plans..." Al Stewart. john - the programmer.


oneeye_wilbur 3 years ago

My father was a programmer for Univac I, quite a big deal for a bunch of guys who went through the Depression and the Second World war to in a matter of weeks start writing programs for the Dept of Agriculture. They got the computer that was used in Eisenhower's election that tabulate votes.

That computer is now replaced with what a laptop can do.


compmd 3 years ago

i remember the good old days of dialing into a network or directly to a unix machine to chat. we used to have console messaging enabled so people could accept a message written directly to their tty (write user blah) or have chat conversations with talk or the fancy ytalk program. as technology progressed we had more fun with it. when the t1 came along abusing users by pipng the output of yes to write had hilarious results for those dialed in at 2400 bps.


Pywacket 3 years ago

This is so cool! They are unsung pioneers, of a sort. They were before their time, unfortunately--if the technology had been available to them in the stone age of the 70s, they'd very likely have made KU the birthplace of the explosively popular tool we know as Facebook, and they'd have gotten rich from it.


emu 3 years ago

The biggest difference between then and now is that most of the posts are in English that uses recognizable spellings.


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