Before Texting There Was Mainframe Chat

Looking back at the evolution of chat… before everyone had cell phones and the ability to chat in text message to almost anyone else, there was “the mainframe”.

The fall of 1988 I was a university undergrad in Engineering. Back then the only people on campus who got email accounts were either employees, computer science students or engineering students.

The email accounts were on the mainframe. You used a green-on-black VT-220 dumb terminal in a computer lab to get access to the mainframe, and then you launched the text based mail program. Getting email to each other within the university wasn’t bad, but email routing to someone in another university was painful.

Some of us enterprising undergrads discovered that the mail program wasn’t the only thing running on the mainframe. We tried ALL of the programs just to see what they would do. One of them we tried was called “talk”, and it split the screen into an upper and lower half, allowing you to type on one half while someone else who was logged into the mainframe could type on the other half. Great fun.

Then I discovered that the mainframe had no privacy, and you could see a complete list of everyone who was logged in – including the employee accounts (I didn’t share this discovery). So I started trying to “talk” with random people, many of them employees, and some of them took me up on it. I had some interesting conversations with people who were usually too enthralled with the technology to be mad at me for interrupting them.

To this day, one of the employees that I chatted with in 1988 is still a friend, and we’ll be going for lunch shortly.