Sendmail Creator Eric Allman Brings Email to the Masses

October 17, 2017

As part of a small crowd of early network pioneers at the University of California Berkeley, Eric Allman created Sendmail, which was one of the first mail transfer agents on the Internet and a key component of many email servers today.

Still, Allman likes to emphasize that he was just one of many people behind development of the Internet’s email standards and technology. He says it was only through friendly competition and years of collaboration and tweaks to what began as a mailing system on the ARPAnet that he ended up solving the technological issues that made the later versions of Sendmail in the late 80s and early 90s an Internet staple.

In 2014, he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame as an ‘Innovator’ for being the first person to make Internet addresses highly configurable by rewriting the email rule technology. He was also recognized for creating Syslog, the de facto standard logging mechanism used in nearly all open systems and peripherals.

His interest in computers began in the late 60s, he says, when he still in middle school in California.

While most people didn’t even know what a computer was then, Allman said he joined an after school program that enabled students to play around with one of the school district’s IBM mainframe computers. There, he said he learned both FORTRAN and accurate typing skills because programming was still done by key punch cards.

It wasn’t long before he got bored and discovered a printed list of the district’s operating system, which he began to modify. 

“I literally was probably barely into adolescence when I started playing with software,” Allman recalled.

He was also very interested in computer hardware, building his own computers and working through circuit board diagrams. But once he got into UC Berkeley, he said, he realized he couldn’t do both and do them both well.

“I picked software for, I think, fairly good reasons,” Allman said. “Software gets you a little bit more away from the physical world. Although I still kind of play with hardware in my basement.”

As a sophomore at Berkeley, he was hired to work on the INGRES Project, one of the first relational database management systems. When that program got an ARPAnet connection, he said, more and more people wanted accounts on the computer. But terminal ports were expensive and shared, so people kept getting disconnected in the middle of a session. 

“I ended up realizing that people didn’t actually want to use ARPAnet for remote login or for file transfers,” Allman noted. “What they really wanted was email.”

“So, I wrote a program,” Allman said. “I literally almost threw it together over the weekend, so people could direct mail through our machine without actually directly connecting to it.”

When Berkeley got the contract to develop an operating system for the Internet, he said Bill Joy came to him and said, “We’re going to need a mail program and you’re the only one who knows how to write it.” 

Allman says now, “If I had known had known how hard it would be I would have said, ‘You’re insane.’”

The one condition, Allman said, was that he drop the name ‘Deliver Mail.’ And so Sendmail was born. He says it’s a name no one really liked, but it stuck.

Allman then went back to the database world, while others continued to write new versions of Sendmail. (“Some good, some bad.”)

And in the late ‘80s, early 90s, Allman came back to Berkeley, “took all these other good ideas and expanded on them,” and ended up developing the version of Sendmail that “knocked everyone else out.”

He then went to work for a company, which he said “was a complete and utter disaster,” before starting his own company, called—of course—Sendmail.

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