Published: Sept. 1, 2016 By


In the Beginning...

Better than most Buffs, Mike Carter (DistSt’85) recalls when email began catching fire on campus: In 1987 he became CU Boulder’s very first “network mail administrator.” 

"Basically, my job was to make sure that email flowed between the various centrally managed email servers on campus and off,” said the man known in campus IT circles as the “ITS historian.” 

CU computer scientists and other researchers were using early forms of electronic messaging by the late 1970s, Carter said, and they were still the main users when he arrived as a computer-savvy freshman in 1981.

By his estimate, fewer than 1,000 people on campus were then messaging by computer, and with decidedly primitive systems: They could leave and retrieve text-only messages on designated computers, but not transmit between them. 

The adoption of email as we’d recognize it today — computer-to-computer messaging — advanced throughout the 1980s and exploded as the ’90s dawned. 

Sometime in the 1989-1991 period, the student government helped pay for the first servers dedicated to student email, Carter said, helping make it widely available to students.

“The early ’90s was when all this stuff blew up and became an important part of higher education,” he said.

By 1992 CU Boulder was providing every student with email as a matter of course. Faculty and staff got accounts a little sooner. Most people then would have used the Elm (short for electronic mail) email client and typically had addresses in the familiar form

In all, there are now about 180,000 addresses, including those assigned to alumni.

One of Carter’s earliest addresses, from 1982, could hardly have been simpler: It was mike@boulder

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Illustration courtesy Mike Carter