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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Jim Ellis / He helped pave the Information Highway

Friday, June 29, 2001

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jim Ellis, who set out to connect a handful of computers so they could share technical data and created a precursor to the modern Internet, died of cancer yesterday at his home in Harmony, Beaver County. He was 45.

His death was announced by the family in an e-mail -- something he helped make possible when he created Usenet, the first openly available computer network that burgeoned into a worldwide mosaic that is now the backbone of the information age.

He moved to Western Pennsylvania 15 years ago to work at the Super Computing Center in Oakland. Later, he worked for the Computer Emergency Response Team. He spent the end of his career telecommuting to work a continent away at Sun Microsystems in California.

Neither Mr. Ellis nor his co-inventors made a cent on their creation, which ushered in the era of e-mail, Internet discussion groups and an information explosion that continues to grow exponentially.

It was 1979 when Mr. Ellis and a fellow Duke University student, Tom Truscott, decided to use e-mail programs and university computers to establish what were, essentially, electronic bulletin boards to which any member could post items using computer modems and telephone lines.

"Our estimate was one to two articles a day and from 50 to 100 computers maximum," recalled Steve Bellovin, an AT&T researcher who helped draw up plans for the network in 1979.

Today, there are now more than 50,000 Usenet news and discussion groups, and there are too many computers linked to the system to count.

Born in Nashville, Tenn., James Tice Ellis, grew up in Orlando, Fla. He was, in his early years, famously shy.

In college, he took a summer job as a tour guide on the Jungle Cruise attraction at Disney World, which required constant talking, mugging and banter.

"He was scared to death to speak in public," said his wife, Carolyn. "He found out he was good at it. It really helped to bring him out of his shell."

At Duke, Mr. Ellis was a physics major, but found himself spending countless hours in the computer laboratory.

"He was a great visionary of how the Net was to be used," said Tom Longstaff, a longtime friend and colleague. "His biggest accomplishments were always the interaction between technology and society."

At the time Usenet was conceived, the assemblage of interconnected government computers -- the Advanced Research Projects Agency net -- was open only to government researchers and contractors. Mr. Ellis, Truscott, Bellovin and a fourth researcher, Stephen Daniel, set up their system by having university and nongovernmental computers shift data over phone lines in the evenings, allowing individual users to log on and post their ideas.

Mr. Ellis presented the full concept of Usenet at a 1980 conference in Boulder, Colo., where 80 copies of a printed "Invitation to a General Access Unix Network" were snatched up by the 400 attendees.

"Sadly, I don't think any of these have survived," Ellis wrote 11 years later.

He remembered the audience was especially fascinated by his description of a "home brewed" auto-dialer Duke had hooked up, moving at a startling 300 baud. Today's basic modems connect at 56,000 baud, although most heavy Internet traffic flows over cable lines.

"Whoever was willing to call you at night and download all these messages was part of Usenet," said Carolyn Ellis. "They just sat back and gawked at how it grew."

It grew, primarily, because Mr. Ellis' concept was at once ambitious and simple: every computer was equal in strength on the system, and anyone with a modem could get on.

"It was designed not to be just for the geeks, but to be for an average person who had something to say," Longstaff said.

Mr. Ellis, in a recollection posted on a Usenet archive, recalled how "we felt we needed to get across the idea that Usenet was already a fully-functioning, nonlocal network rather than the patchwork . . . that really existed."

Usenet's original configuration linked three computers -- two at Duke and one at the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus, about 10 miles away. Later, those computers linked with others at Bell Laboratories, the University of California at Berkeley and Reed College in Oregon.

Initially, the idea of information shared over computers was unsettling to some. The FBI, interested in participating, had Usenet messages recorded onto rolls of magnetic tape, then shipped to its computer system, rather than logging on.

Mr. Ellis said the Bell computer was code-named "Research" because the researcher there who arranged the link to Usenet feared Bell management wouldn't like the idea.

Nervousness about the connections, Mr. Ellis said, sometimes resulted in bizarre connections.

"One of the worst examples was that Tektronix, in Oregon, couldn't send e-mail to some other site a local phone call away because it was against policy to set up the connection. But they could, and did, send mail via Berkeley/Research/Duke going cross-country twice to reach [a member who was] a local phone call away," Ellis wrote.

After two years without direct connection to ARPA net, a technician at Berkeley matter-of-factly connected the system to Usenet, and the Internet as it is known today took shape.

That technician, Mark Horton, interviewed by author Ronda Hauben for her book "Netizens," recalled his own amazement when e-mails he had sent to the East Coast would be answered within hours.

Mr. Ellis and Truscott were later honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington-based lobbying arm for the computer and Internet industry. Their award conferred official credit for the creation of Usenet and its contribution to the creation of worldwide electronic communications.

By then, Mr. Ellis had moved on to specialize in network security.

Co-workers at CERT recalled him playing an important role in lobbying the makers of anti-virus computer software to give away updates -- called "patches" on the Internet -- rather than trying to sell them to consumers who had already bought the product.

"He basically changed the way we all deal with security on a network," Longstaff said.

With his wife, Mr. Ellis also became active in the League of Women Voters. The two served as co-presidents of the North Hills chapter, and Mr. Ellis oversaw the introduction of the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh's voters guide online and chaired the chapters "cyber committee."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Ellis is survived by a daughter, Laura; a son, Allen; and his parents, Henry and Elsa Ellis of Orlando.

The funeral will be held at 3 p.m. tomorrow at Camp Run United Presbyterian Church, Fombell. Donations are requested for the Cure for Lymphoma Foundation, 215 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10016.

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