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.


emu 6 years, 11 months ago

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

Cait McKnelly 6 years, 11 months ago

O god. I'm still cleaning coffee offa the screen!

Cait McKnelly 6 years, 11 months ago

Hmmm. The real explosion with social media had to wait until computers could not only talk to each other but do it over distances. This was a case of people talking to each other over one computer. The intranet had to come first and then the internet. It may be colored by my own progression; BBS, Usenet, MUSHes and MUXes, Livejournal (one of the first blogging systems. My LJ dates back over 10 years.) colored along the way by IRC, ICQ and various other realtime chat utilities. I can remember being excited back in '97 when chat utilities added the ability to "conference" with more than 2 people. Poor guys. There are disadvantages to being too much before your time as there are to being too late to the dance.

AlexanderBarket 6 years, 11 months ago

No what ifs have gone through my head. I have many ideas that I cannot or have chosen not to act upon. I have the satisfaction of having faith in myself without having to achive every shiny object idea I have had in life, and in the arena of software I have written many,many apps across many architectures. In all of that, Honk was the ranked 12 on the 10 point "Silly-ometer Scale" of ways to use a mainframe computer at the time.

However, the fun of reading the honk content, and knowing the outrageous use of the mainframe for this "Free for all" style purpose is enough.

After all, DaVinci didn't build eveything in his notebook either.

compmd 6 years, 11 months 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.

johnborak 6 years, 11 months ago

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

AlexanderBarket 6 years, 11 months 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.

AlexanderBarket 6 years, 11 months 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 6 years, 11 months ago

I work for KU, as the article states. And I do remember the decks. And the noisy keypunch machines. I am from Kansas City and have lived in Lawrence since 1970.

I have worked with computers and technology for 42 years and love today's world of the internet. It is one big Honk file in many ways.

AlexanderBarket 6 years, 11 months ago

Your wrote:

Some of us are but fictions in this honking, virtual reality.

Yes. You get it. Honk on.

mmather 6 years, 11 months 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..

AlexanderBarket 6 years, 11 months ago

Great example. In the party line you may or may not know the people by face, but you know their voice. And what's going on.

Yours was a very cool note to read. Social networking isn't about how many, although, how many can also mean you are as naked as a jaybird when you right now. I bet on the party line there was a certain "protocol" and "courtesy" ethic.

Or was it like CNN or such where everyone talks over every one else? I bet not.

The morse code tappings of the Hanoi Hilton occupants was a social network. The postings weren't written to database servers, but I bet they are remembered. And, they gave hope to some of those men.

LloydDobbler 6 years, 11 months ago

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

squarepusher 6 years, 11 months ago

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

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