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RIP Jim Ellis

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One of the two men behind Usenet, Jim Ellis, has died aged 45. He died at his home in Pennsylvania yesterday morning after losing his battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Jim, together with fellow Duke University graduate Tom Truscott, came up with concept of Usenet - basically linking two computers together to share information - in 1979, predating the Web by 10 years. Steve Bellovin then wrote the first program, with Steve Daniel contributing to the first widely used version.

In 1980, it consisted of just two sites - one at Duke University and another in the University of North Carolina. However it became extremely popular very quickly as a means of sharing information across the globe and before the arrival of the Web was the largest decentralised store of information ever known.

In 1993, it had 1,200 newsgroups covering every imaginable topic from in-depth techie articles to home-spun philosophy. It also created the culture of flames - abusive emails. By 1999, the number of groups had grown to 37,000.

Jim and Tom Truscott initially came up with the idea of Usenet based on their knowledge of ARPANET but wanted a single program that could allow file sharing for universities outside the DARPA R&D organisation.

They called a meeting to thrash out the idea which Steve Bellovin attended. Steve then wrote the first version in Unix Bourne shell. It was simple but effective - it periodically checked the "last saved" time-stamp of each file in a certain directory, and then sent any new updated files to another computer over a modem link.

The program was then rewritten - with Steve Daniel's input - and given away free. It has since been rewritten twice - once in 1982 and again in 1989, getting more efficient each time. Despite its enormous success, none of the original creators ever made a penny out of Usenet.

Jim Ellis was a key pioneer of the electronic age and has been rewarded for his contribution numerous times through awards. In 1993, he shared the bill with Vinton Cerf, Ward Christensen, Dave Hughes and Paul Baran at the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Awards. In 1995 he was given the Usenix Lifetime Achievement Award.

After leaving North Carolina, he worked for the Super Computing Center in Pittsburgh and then joined Sun, working from his home. His wife Carolyn said of him yesterday: "He had a good wit. He loved bridge. He loved his family of course. He was not afraid of his impending death."

Rest in peace Jim Ellis. ®

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