Ira Fuchs is credited with co-founding Because It's Time Network (BITNET), the world's first computer messaging network for liberal arts professors, in 1981. His work played a crucial role in the early development of the Internet and e-mail technology, and he continues to pioneer information technology projects in the academic world.
As an undergraduate student majoring in physics at Columbia University, where he later earned a master's degree in computer science, Fuchs was approached by Kenneth King, director of the Thomas Watson computer laboratory, which had been funded by IBM Corp. Fuchs agreed to take on some systems programming work, and when King accepted a position with the City University of New York (CUNY), he took Fuchs with him. At the age of 24, Fuchs became director of CUNY's computing center. It was there that Fuchs began to see a need among liberal arts scholars for messaging capabilities similar to those offered to math and physics researchers on ARPAnet, a messaging network established by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1969.
Fuchs began discussing his idea with Yale scholar Greydon Freeman. Recognizing that most campuses already were equipped with the remote spooling communications system (RSCS) built into IBM computers, Fuchs and Freeman began researching ways to use RSCS in conjunction with a mainframe system, a modem, and a phone line to allow messages and files to pass back and forth between universities. Hoping to generate additional support for their ideas, Fuchs and Freeman headed up a consortium of technology representatives from several universities in the Northeast that would soon serve, under Fuchs' guidance, as the executive committee to BITNET.
CUNY and Yale were linked on May 5, 1981, marking the birth of BITNET. By 1984, BITNET had connected more than 150 campuses. Interested in the potential of such a network, IBM began working with Fuchs and agreed to fund BITNET's expansion into Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and also to pay for the establishment of a headquarters facility. In 1986, Eric Thomas created LISTSERV, mailing list software specifically designed to work with BITNET. As a result, BITNET users were able to send e-mail messages to a special LISTSERV address and then see their message automatically forwarded to multiple people whose names were on the list. While BITNET is no longer used today, except for a version called BITNET II that transfers BITNET data via the Internet, LISTSERV evolved into a popular commercial mailing list software program.
In the mid-1990s it became apparent to Fuchs and the rest of BITNET's managerial board—by then known as the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN)—that BITNET, in its original form, had been rendered virtually obsolete by the Internet. However, despite his network's short life, Fuchs' impact on messaging technology has been profound. According to Internet researcher Paul Gilster, as quoted by Barbara Fox in a U.S. 1 Newspaper article, "Fuchs and Freeman were the ones who took networking out of the technical and made it available as a practical daily tool."
Fuchs left City College in 1986 for Princeton University, where he accepted the position of vice president for computing and information technology. After spearheading the development of the university's Web site, he began working on getting the entire campus, including students living in dormitories, hooked up to the Internet. While working for Princeton, Fuchs also became the chief scientist for Journal Storage (JSTOR), a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that catalogs out-of-print academic journals and makes articles accessible online. In July of 2000, Fuchs accepted the post of vice president for research in information technology at the Mellon Foundation, where he began working on a project to compile images of fine art works and make them accessible to online researchers.
Fox, Barbara. "Making the Internet Work for Princeton." U.S. 1 Newspaper. November 27, 1996. Available from www.princeton.edu.
Grier, David Alan; and Mary Campbell. "A Social History of Bitnet and Listserv, 1985-1991." In IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. Washington: Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, 2000. Available from www.computer.org.
Indiana University Knowledge Base. "What Was BITNET and What Happened to It?" Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1998. Available from kb.indiana.edu.
Olsen, Florence. "Mellon Foundation Hires Princeton's Ira Fuchs for a New Technology Post." The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 17, 2000. Available at chronicle.com.
SEE ALSO: ARPAnet; BITNET; History of the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW)