The story of VNS

What was VNS?

In 1981 there was no Internet, no World Wide Web, no Facebook, no global television yet there was international travel and international companies.

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), was a US minicomputer manufacturer and software maker and destined by the end of the decade to become for a short time the world’s second largest computer company after IBM. Based in New England, in the north east of the USA, they began opening development offices in other countries. One such office was in Reading, England.

The main software development facities for DEC were in New England and the company offered relocation to British engineers to move to work with their colleagues in the USA.

In those days, and until the development of the Internet in the early 1990’s, it was difficult for ex-pats in the USA to get news of England. One example was in 1987 when the Big Storm hit England, the news in the USA was dominated by the efforts to rescue a toddler falling down a well in Texas and and Nancy Reagan having an operation on her breast. There was a small piece hidden inside the Boston Globe saying that Sevenoaks no longer had seven oaks and that was about it.

Back in 1981, soon after a group of British software engineers relocated to New England, one of them, Alan Blannin, asked his friend back in Reading to send him the test cricket scores so he could keep up with his favourite sport. His friend, Richard De Morgan, not only sent the cricket results but also added some local news. This developed over a period of three months so that every work day morning, Richard would send Alan, over the DEC email system, a summary of the morning news, with any cricket results of course. Alan then forwarded the email to other ex-pat Brits working in New England who were also starved of UK news. Three months after the very first email, by November 1981, Richard had a circulation of 30 for his news service.

DEC were pioneers in computer networking. They developed a networking protocol known as DECnet and built a global company network they named the Easynet. Being a minicomputer manufacturer, their network consisted of many thousand minicomputers. Each employee had an account on one specific computer from which their could send and receive email. Each computer in the network had a name. The software group that Richard worked in named their computers after characters in the novels by Douglas Adams, the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”. The computer Richard used was named VOGON and so Richard jokingly called his emails the “VOGON News Service” and the name stuck. It soon became known by its acronym “VNS”

In 1984, the Easynet included over 2,000 computers as nodes in its computer network. In 1987, it had 15,000 nodes (in 39 countries) growing to 54,000 nodes as of 1990. Virtually every employee had an email account, each attached to one of the computers in the network.

The VOGON News Service proved very popular with ex-pats around the world and the circulation grew. By 1985, the circulation list was nearing 2000 people and still managed “by hand”. At this time, Alan Blannin who had been distributing the emails himself, left DEC and Marios Cleovoulou took over “publishing” VNS. As he realised the amount of work required to maintain an every growing distribution, Marios decided to automate both production and delivery of the daily issues. He used the software tools available within DEC which were very sophisticated for the time.

Interest in VNS spread and by the tenth anniversary edition on 9th February 1990, there were 7851 readers receiving VNS by email and over 4000 reading each issue on VTX, the DEC videotext service.

The Internet was itself expanding by this time. The World Wide Web had been invented in 1989 and started to become available to the public in August 1991.

Up until the spread of the Internet, VNS was only circulated automatically within Digital although some Digital employees then forwarded it on to friends who had email. From 27th March 1992, Craig Cockburn began to post issues onto the soc.culture.british newsgroup. The first issue is available both on this site and in the soc.culture.british Google group.

In 1991-1992, VNS had over 8,000 direct email subscribers within Digital, over 4,000 readers using DEC VTX and an unknown number of readers outside of Digital.

Once national and international news agencies began to create sites on the internet, together with the decline of Digital as a global corporation, VNS readership declined. It is not known exactly when VNS stopped publishing. The system was automatic and published whenever articles were sent to it by approved writers. The final issue posted on soc.culture.british was on 9th January 1995.

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